David Friedman testifies before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on his nomination to be U.S. ambassador to Israel. Feb. 16. Photo By Yuri Gripas/REUTERS.

Trump’s Israel envoy pick David Friedman: ‘No excuse’ for past rhetoric on liberal Jews

David Friedman at the launch of U.S. Senate hearings to confirm him as ambassador to Israel said there was “no excuse” for his past rhetoric targeting liberal Jews.

In his opening remarks, Friedman said his attacks were “partisan rhetoric” during a heated presidential election campaign. Friedman is Trump’s longtime lawyer and was a key surrogate to the Jewish community during the campaign.

He called the liberal Middle East policy group J Street “kapos” and the Anti-Defamation League “morons.” He also likened Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who appeased Adolf Hitler.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., the ranking member of the Foreign Relations committee, which must approve Friedman to advance his nomination to the full Senate, said the terms seemed to go beyond partisan rhetoric.

Cardin said he and Friedman had in common that “our parents were proud Zionists who worked and did everything they could in support for the State of Israel.” But noting his father was the president of a synagogue – Friedman’s was a rabbi – Cardin added, “My father taught me to respect different views.”

The Maryland lawmaker also noted that some of Friedman’s statements – particularly his attack on Schumer, made during the heat of the battle over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – came before the campaign and in many cases were written comments.

“I’m having difficulty understanding your use of those descriptions and whether you really can be a diplomat,” Cardin said.

Friedman appeared chastened.

“I provided some context for my remarks, but that was not in the nature of an excuse,” he said. “These were hurtful words and I deeply regret them. They’re not reflective of my nature and character.”

Cardin also pressed Friedman about past statements that appeared to oppose a two-state solution addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and noted his backing for settlements, including some deep inside the West Bank.

Friedman replied that he had been skeptical of a two-state solution, but would welcome any solution arrived at by the Israelis and Palestinians that ended suffering for both peoples.

Protesters interrupted the hearings at least three times, including by a contingent from the Jewish protest group If Not Now who sang as they were ejected “Olam Chesed Yibaneh,” “Build a world of kindness.”

David Friedman in New York City on June 21, 2016. Photo by Mike Segar/Reuters

The case against David Friedman

Who ever thought that the savior of the Jews would be Rand Paul?

The libertarian Republican senator from Kentucky may just end up casting the decisive vote in the confirmation of David Friedman to be the United States ambassador to Israel. If Paul joins with the Democrats on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, President Donald Trump’s pick would find his ascension to the high profile and sensitive job blocked.

Senator Paul, do it.  For our sake.

Here’s my pitch: Within reason, presidents have the right to choose their representatives.  Ambassadors don’t make policy, they help communicate or enact it.  As Trump’s longtime bankruptcy lawyer, Friedman is more than qualified to do Trump’s bidding– assuming he can figure out what that is.

During his campaign, Trump came out very strongly for moving the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, for supporting the current government’s settlement policies and for ripping up the Iran nuclear deal.

Those are all positions that garnered Trump ardent support from a minority of Jews. And they are positions that Friedman, who has served Trump as his personal lawyer, holds as well. Friedman is an ardent supporter of Israel’s settlement enterprise. He has donated money to help build at least one of them. He speaks Hebrew and has a home in Jerusalem, where he said he will conduct official business. He also despises the Iran deal.

But now President Trump no longer seems as keen on any of these promises as Candidate Trump. In fact, over the past three weeks, Trump has completely walked back or broken them all. After a brief meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah, he decided to go very, very slowly on moving the embassy. As for settlements, in a Feb. 9 interview with Israel Hayom newspaper, Trump said, “Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace.”

Wait, no. President Barack Obama said that in a 2013 speech. Here’s what Trump actually said to Israel Hayom: “I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace.”

Anyway, same difference.

On the Iran deal, Trump ate a lavish meal of hot, roasted crow. Last week, The Wall Street Journal headlined the fact that Trump administration officials are “Committed to Keeping the Iranian Deal Alive.” Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), once among the deal’s most outspoken critics, echoed his boss, I mean, the president, saying it appears to be working.

All these reality checks will no doubt lead to some challenging questions for Friedman as he appears before the committee beginning Feb. 16.  He will have to serve up a more thoughtful, realistic and nuanced view of U.S. policy in the Middle East than the stories Trump told his eager and, alas, most gullible Jewish supporters.

But wherever Trump– or Friedman — stands on these positions isn’t why I want Sen. Paul to vote against him. The fact that he is a diplomatic neophyte in an extremely complex region might give some people pause, but not me.  He certainly won’t be the least qualified person the president has selected, and as we now know, he is far from the most compromised.

The reason I’m hoping the committee’s hawkish Democrats and Paul vote against Friedman has less to do with Israel, and more with the Jews.

During the election, Friedman referred to the pro-Israel peace organization J Street as “kapos” and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) as “morons.” When Jewish groups expressed outrage, Friedman doubled down. On a right-wing website, he answered whether he could possibly equate Jews who support a two-state approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with Jews who collaborated with Nazis to kill their fellow Jews.

“The answer,” Friedman wrote, “actually, is no. They are far worse than kapos — Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps. The kapos faced extraordinary cruelty and who knows what any of us would have done under those circumstances to save a loved one? But J Street? They are just smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas — it’s hard to imagine anyone worse.”

To my ears, those sentences disqualify Friedman as U.S. ambassador to Israel.

As I’ve written before, a plurality of American Jews support a two-state approach. This doesn’t necessarily translate into support for J Street. You can support two states and still disagree with J Street’s strategy or its positions on other issues. But in any case, Friedman is drawing a battle line and damning, in the most vicious and undiplomatic way, a significant portion of American Jewry.

What Friedman said is bad for Israel, which has long depended on broad support among American Jewry to ensure bipartisan support in Congress. And it’s bad — really bad — for the American-Jewish community. As much as the ambassador represents the U.S. to Israel, he or she also serves as one of the most high-profile leaders of American Jewry.  There are not so many of us that we can afford leaders who denigrate and write off entire portions of this community, who stoke enmity and inflame hatred.

After this column went to press for the Jewish Journal print edition, various web sites reported that Friedman, in a private meeting with the New York Board of Rabbis, apologized for his “kapo” comments.  He will have to do so sincerely, and publicly, before that apology is accepted.

Israel will survive David Friedman; American Jewry, I’m not so sure. Sen. Paul, strange as it seems, we’re looking to you.

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.

President Donald Trump's candidate for ambassador to Israel David Friedman. Photo taken in June 2016 by Mike Segar/REUTERS.

Letters from rabbis, Holocaust survivors decry Trump Israel envoy pick David Friedman

Letters to the Senate from hundreds of rabbis, and dozens of Holocaust survivors and scholars say the abuse of the term “kapo” by President Donald Trump’s nominee for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, should be a factor in considering his confirmation.

An array of liberal Jewish groups organized three separate letters this week to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: one each from rabbis and cantors, from Holocaust survivors and from Holocaust scholars. The letters will be delivered to senators on the committee before Friedman’s confirmation hearing commences Thursday.

The letters from the rabbis and the cantors, which has accrued more than 600 signatures from clergy of all streams, and from 31 Holocaust survivors urge the committee to reject Friedman.

The 29 Holocaust scholars – including a handful not based in the United States – in their letter stop short of a call to reject Friedman, but say: “We hope that you will keep Mr. Friedman’s disrespectful and politically cynical use of the Holocaust in mind as you consider his nomination to serve as our ambassador to Israel.”

Each of the letters focuses principally on Friedman’s use of the term “kapo” to attack J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle Eastern policy group.

“The historical record shows that kapos were Jews whom the Nazis forced, at pain of death, to serve them in the concentration and extermination camps,” the Holocaust scholars say.

“These Jews faced terrible dilemmas, but ultimately were made into unwilling tools of Nazi brutality. To brand one’s political opponents, members of one’s own community, as kapos, merely for engaging in legitimate debate, is historically indefensible and is a deeply disturbing example of the abuse of the Holocaust and its victims for present political gain.”

The survivors call Friedman’s use of the term “slanderous, insulting, irresponsible, cynical and immensely damaging to our people.”

The rabbis call it the “very antithesis of the diplomatic behavior Americans expect from their ambassadors” and also focus on Friedman’s long association with the settlement movement, including major donations.

“We are very concerned that rather than try to represent the U.S. as an advocate for peace, Mr. Friedman will seek to mold American policy in line with his extreme ideology,” their letter says.

Friedman is a longtime friend and lawyer to Trump.

Organizing the push to persuade the Senate to block his confirmation are J Street, Ameinu, Americans for Peace Now, the National Council of Jewish Women, the New Israel Fund, Partners for Progressive Israel and T’ruah, a rabbinical human rights group.

Partners for Progressive Israel, a group affiliated with leftist Zionist parties in Israel, urged its activists on Monday to call senators and voice their opposition to Friedman.

Christians United for Israel ran a full-page ad in the Capitol Hill daily, The Hill, on Tuesday urging Friedman’s confirmation and was set to run a similar one on Wednesday in the Washington Post.

“The only serious complaint about Friedman is that some disagree with him on policy,” said the ad.

“They don’t like his support for Jewish communities in the West Bank. They object to his skepticism towards a two-state solution,” it said. “But agree or not – these views are far from extreme. Friedman’s positions represent those of a significant and growing percentage of Israelis and Americans.”

Palestinian statehood: An idea whose time has passed

J Street is worried. It sees its cherished dream of a Palestinian state slipping away.

J Street recently sent a letter to its supporters in which it complained that the Republican Party left Palestinian statehood out of its platform this year, and that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee reportedly left the issue out of a talking points sheet that it recently distributed.

Here’s another reason for J Street to worry. Speaking Dec. 4 at the Jewish Media Summit in Jerusalem, Knesset Member Michael Oren said that the election of Donald Trump “spells the end of the two-state solution.” Oren is not some extremist. He is the widely respected former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., a representative of the moderate Kulanu Party, and himself a supporter of Palestinian statehood (with certain limitations).

It’s time to read the writing on the wall: Palestinian statehood is an idea whose time has passed.

It’s not as if creating a Palestinian state is some kind of cherished principle that has been recognized and supported by everybody since time immemorial. In fact, it’s a very recent proposal, and has always been fraught with problems.

There have been 12 American presidents since 1948. Only two (George W. Bush and Barack Obama) advocated creating a Palestinian state. Official U.S. policy has favored Palestinian statehood during only 16 of the 68 years since Israel was founded.

I’m not including those who advocated Palestinian statehood after they left office, namely Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. When presidents are in office, they need to deal with the real world, which is why a cockamamie idea like creating a Palestinian state has never come to fruition. Once presidents no longer have to deal with real-world consequences, they feel free to advocate any irresponsible policy that suits their post-presidential convenience. 

There have been 12 different Israeli prime ministers since the Jewish state was established in 1948. Only two of them (Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert) advocated creating a Palestinian state. I’m not including Benjamin Netanyahu, because his concept of a fully demilitarized “Palestine” that accepts Israel as a Jewish state is so far removed from what the Palestinians and their supporters demand that his position is really only hypothetical.

There have always been two arguments in favor of creating a Palestinian state. Neither of them has withstood the test of time.

The first was that Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Arabs had given up their goal of destroying Israel and had forsaken terrorism. According to this argument, they had changed their ways, so they could be trusted with their own state in Israel’s backyard.

This argument faced two major tests, and failed both times. President George H.W. Bush accepted this argument shortly after his election in 1988, and recognized Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Eighteen months later, when a major PLO faction tried to attack Israeli beachgoers in Tel Aviv and the nearby U.S. embassy, Bush realized he had been wrong and ended his relationship with Arafat. Then the U.S. recognized Arafat and the PLO a second time, after the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993. That blew up when Arafat tried to smuggle 50 tons of weapons into Gaza on the motor vessel Karine A in 2002.

The second argument for a Palestinian state was what became known as the “demographic time bomb” — the allegation that because of the high Arab birthrate, Israel will need to agree to a Palestinian state or it will become an apartheid-like ruler over the Palestinians. Yitzhak Rabin resolved that problem. In 1995, he withdrew Israel’s forces from the cities where 98 percent of the Palestinians reside. Now, they are residents of the Palestinian Authority, and they vote in Palestinian elections. They will never be Israeli citizens, will never vote in Israeli elections and will never threaten Israel’s Jewish demographic majority.

So Arafat settled the first debate. And Rabin settled the second debate. The debates are over. It is now plain as day that the Palestinians have not given up terrorism or forsaken their goal of destroying Israel, and would use a Palestinian state to advance that goal.

There may be no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in our generation; not all international conflicts have solutions. One thing has now become clear: A Palestinian state next to Israel is not the solution. 

Stephen M. Flatow, a New Jersey attorney, is vice president of the Religious Zionists of America and the father of Alisa Flatow, who was murdered by Palestinian terrorists in 1995. 

Foxman: Friedman’s comments on ADL, J Street are ‘unacceptable’

This story originally appeared on “>described as “worse than Kapos,” and for

Trump’s ambassador to Israel on ADL: ‘They’re morons’

This story originally appeared on “>interview with Jewish Insider on the eve of the election, Friedman referred to leaders of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) as “morons” for condemning Trump’s campaign rhetoric and commercials that were perceived as dog-whistles to his anti-Semitic supporters.

“People talk about dog-whistles and about Trump with dog-whistles,” Friedman said in a wide-ranging interview. “As soon as Jonathan Greenblatt accused Trump of somehow being anti-Semitic, what did we hear next? We heard this clown from Minnesota, [Senator] Al Franken, who should go back to his career as a comedian. (Franken

If J Streeters are ‘kapos,’ so are half of all Israelis

David Friedman, the man President-elect Donald Trump just selected to be the next United States Ambassador to Israel, has pre-offended a good chunk of American Jewry by referring to the supporters of the liberal Zionist group J Street as “kapos.”

Kapos were the Jews forced or designated by the Nazis to help kill other Jews during the Holocaust.  It’s about the lowest thing you can call a fellow Jew. But then, in a column in a right-wing newspaper, Friedman doubled down.

J Street supporters, he wrote, are actually “worse than kapos.”

“The kapos faced extraordinary cruelty and who knows what any of us would have done under those circumstances to save a loved one?” Friedman wrote. “But J Street? They are just smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas — it’s hard to imagine anyone worse.”

J Street is a pro-Zionist lobbying group that promotes a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians. For some observant Jews, the very idea of giving back the Biblical lands of Judea and Samaria, also known as the West Bank, is anathema. For a minority of American Jews, religious or not, territorial compromise with the Palestinians solution is a recipe for the destruction of Israel. 

Even so, I’m not sure the majority of Jews who oppose compromise would call J Street supporters “kapos,” since many of those supporters are their own sons, daughters and friends.

But putting aside the coarseness of the term, there’s another reason it is, on the face of it, wrong-headed: because almost half or more of all Israelis support the J Street agenda as well.

Poll after poll shows Americans, who will be paying Mr. Friedman’s salary, prefer a negotiated solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict.  That’s the J Street position.

But even more striking is that Israelis, who unlike Mr. Freidman have suffered through all the terror and wars that the conflict has wrought, hold the same position.

According to the

J Street cautions Schumer on Iran deal

J Street, likely to emerge after the 2016 election as a major force within the Democratic Party, is expecting from Senator Chuck Schumer to fall in line with supporters of the Iranian nuclear deal once he assumes leadership of the Democratic Caucus in the U.S. Senate.

“Senator Schumer understands that he’s very much in the minority in his own party and he would have a strong uphill battle were he to try to do anything that would actually undermine the deal,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami told Jewish Insider on Wednesday.

“In the final vote, there were only four Democratic senators who did not vote to support the deal,” he asserted. “Senator Schumer did not work hard to rally opposition. He stated his personal view on this and he voted against it, but he was also very understanding and realistic that 90 percent of his colleagues in the Democratic caucus were in favor of the deal; sided with the president, with Secretary [Hillary] Clinton] and Senator [Tim] Kaine.”

In a recent speech at the Israeli American Council National Conference in DC, Schumer “>signed a letter to Senator Mitch McConnell asking that he “prioritize” a clean extension of the Iran Sanctions Act during the Senate’s end-of-year session. The extension, as proposed by the senior Democrats, would run through 2026. “It is essential that Congress keep Iran’s feet to the fire to make sure they do not violate the JCPOA. This bill would provide the sanction authority that helps us do just that,” Schumer said in July.

According to Ben-Ami, the reauthorization of the Iran Sanctions Act for ten years is something J Street can live with. “It is not viewed by us as a step to undermine the deal,” he said. “That in and of itself is not evidence of an intent on part of the senator to use his potential position (as Senate Majority Leader) in a way that might undermine the deal, in the years going forward.”

On Wednesday, J Street kicked off a “>earlier this year that the group has decided to seize the opportunity to expand its control and influence within the Democratic Party after scoring a victory on the Iran deal. “We see this as a unique opportunity to go on the offense and prove that standing up for a diplomacy first approach – which has been proven to be in the best interest of the U.S. and Israel – is not just smart policy but also savvy politics,” Shnider emphasized.

The pro-peace group was “>speech at the annual J Street gala in April. “Your organization played a critical role in mustering the support at home to get that deal through the United States Congress… “Thank you, thank you, thank you for your effort. You have made the world a little bit safer.”

Promising to expand the national campaign if needed, Ben-Ami stressed, “For us, this political fight represents the second chapter in the struggle to uphold the Iran nuclear agreement—and one that is every bit as important as the initial policy win. We need now to put candidates in office not only to defend against ongoing efforts to sink the deal in Congress, but also to protect the important precedent its passage set for pro-diplomacy-first policies going forward.”

Democrats slam J Street’s ‘Pro-Trump’ campaign

Hillary Clinton’s representatives on the Democratic Party’s platform drafting committee refused to negotiate additional language on Israel with Bernie Sanders’ team, James Zogby said on Tuesday.

“Clinton’s envoys to the committee arrived in St. Louis for negotiations with Sanders’ team carrying a precise message: Don’t even try to insert language on Israel’s occupation or settlement activity in the West Bank,” The Jerusalem Post “>launched an online campaign that highlights what they called are anti-Israel voices in the Democratic Party. “Radical Democrat. Stridently anti-Israel. Hand selected to be a Member of the twenty sixteen Democrat Platform Committee,” the narrator says in three separate ads, each highlighting statements made by the three Sanders appointees. “Sadly this isn’t the old Democratic Party. It’s today’s Democratic Party.”

A J Street spokesperson declined to comment.

The Republican Jewish Coalition pounced on the divide within the Democratic Party over the issue. “It’s no secret that Democrats for years have been infighting about Israel. Now as anti-Israel progressive liberals are taking more and more space from moderate Democrats these fights are exploding into the open,” RJC spokesman Mark McNulty told Jewish Insider on Tuesday. “The RJC is proud that the GOP is unapologetically pro-Israel. We will continue to make the case to Jewish voters that now more than ever they have one home and that is with the GOP.”

J Street memo to Democrats calls for ‘balanced position’ on Israel

J Street is joining Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ push to make the party platform’s language more balanced when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

However, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group is also urging platform drafters to note that the party opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.

In a petition headlined “Support Israeli security AND Palestinian rights,” J Street calls for adding language “noting concern about the expansion of settlements, which entrench the occupation and endanger peace.”

In addition, according to a report on Politico Monday, the group is circulating a memo among members of the party’s drafting committee calling for a “a balanced position” that includes recognizing Palestinian claims to eastern Jerusalem.

“The overall tone of the document should establish the party’s deep commitment to meeting the essential needs of both Israelis and Palestinians,” the June 2 memo notes.

Sanders recently sparked concerns among pro-Israel Democrats by appointing Cornel West, Rep. Keith Ellison and James Zogby, three people known for pro-Palestinian activism and criticism of Israel, to the platform drafting committee. West is a prominent BDS backer and Zogby has spoken forcefully against attempts to marginalize the movement.

The Democratic Party platform for years has favored a two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but has also cast that posture on pro-Israel terms and laid the blame for the longstanding impasse mostly on the Palestinians.

Sanders, who is Jewish, has been more critical of Israel than front-runner Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state. In a campaign speech last week focused on foreign policy and security issues, Clinton said the United States has a “moral obligation” to support Israel.

Yes, there is a Jewish left on campus, and it needs to be heard

Recently, in an article for JTA, “The Missing Left: Where’s the support for liberal Zionists on campus?,” Andrew Silow-Carroll noted that “many American pro-Israel organizations and leaders ignore or ostracize liberal Zionists.” In the absence of progressive Zionist groups on campus, who should be able to both criticize and love Israel at the same time, he wrote, the Israel debate on campus is left to those who defend Israel uncritically, or who join the ranks of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

In fact, there is a large, thriving home for pro-Israel, pro-peace students on campus — and J Street is it.

Founded just six years ago, J Street U has spread to over 100 schools across the country, with over 70 full-fledged chapters. Our leaders are front and center in campus conversations about Israel, and regularly engage in debate over Israel’s future in local and national press. Last year, we hosted over 1,100 students at our national conference in Washington, D.C. We are the bridge between liberal values and support for Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.

I’m always surprised when I find myself in a room — be it the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America or other communal spaces — surrounded by Jewish leaders asking why there isn’t a pro-Israel left on campus. I and the other J Street U student organizers are exactly who they’re looking for. We’re leaders of a pro-Israel movement that isn’t afraid to hold its leaders accountable, that loves Israel but feels a deep urgency to end the occupation, that stands for a two-state solution and recognizes that boycotts are not an effective way to get there.

We’re loud and present at our Hillels, in our student governments and at national Jewish and pro-Israel gatherings. We are the pro-Israel left. So why do some leaders seem not to notice us?

My guess is the mainstream Jewish community doesn’t actually know what it wants from a progressive Zionist group on campus. Silow-Carroll wrote in his article that had Bernie Sanders given his speech critical of Israeli policy at the America Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in March, it “might have signaled to young liberal Zionists that the pro-Israel mainstream is at least willing to air such views, even if they don’t like them.” Having a place to “air views” is important, but it’s not why I’m in this movement and it’s not what J Street U believes will end the conflict. We believe that our support for a two-state solution and opposition to settlement expansion are mainstream positions held by the majority of American Jews, and we want our communal leadership to reflect those positions and to act on them.

But I understand that leadership is often resistant to change, hesitant to upset the status quo in which criticism of Israeli policy is anathema and in which there is little room for discussing alternate narratives. When J Street U speaks out loudly and clearly about our values, it challenges our communal leaders to look honestly at their own role in ending the conflict  — so much so that they may prefer to ignore us, rather than seriously reckon with our concerns.

Sometimes, I sense that Jewish communal leaders disapprove of my work, despite the fact that I love Israel and want to help secure its future, just as they do. Some in the community have pressed me to stop organizing for and affiliating with J Street U.

I’ve encountered enough of these sentiments to know the anger usually arises from a place of fear and uncertainty, not of genuine disagreement. Issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the occupation are difficult and contentious, and I understand that many prefer to look away rather than deal with them directly — or to focus exclusively on the anti-Israel sentiments of the far left and ignore the chorus of important questions young pro-Israel progressives are asking.

It may seem easier to ignore J Street U and wait for another progressive, pro-Israel group to come around — one that, magically, could attract and engage thousands of young people without talking about the issues that deeply concern them. Good luck finding it.

In the meantime, J Street U exists — and we’re growing. I urge leaders of our community to come meet with us, question us and listen to us, as many have and continue to do. We are the pro-Israel, pro-peace, progressive group of young people that you have been calling for. You won’t like everything we have to say — and we certainly will have our disagreements with you. But the time has come for us to act together to help address the challenges facing Israel and our community.

Brooke Davies is a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill majoring in peace, war and defense. She is the current J Street UNC chapter chair and also serves as the J Street U national communications chair.

At J Street, Emily’s List president blasts AIPAC’s papers

Emily’s List’s President Stephanie Schriock on Sunday called AIPAC’s policy papers on Israel “shocking” as she described her work on congressional campaigns, going back to the early 1990′s, during a panel, “Pundits, Pollsters & Politicos: How Will Israel Play in the 2016 Elections?,” on the first day of J Street’s National Assembly in DC.

Panelists included NPR’s Mara Liasson, Center for American Progress’ Neera Tanden, pollster Jim Gerstein, J.J. Goldberg and WH liaison Matt Nosanchuk. New York Times’ columnist Roger Cohen served as the moderator.

“I worked for candidates in the 90’s as their Finance Director,” Schriock recalled. “And I would come on a congressional race, I am a twenty something kid who also knows nothing beyond the state borders, and you thought about where you are going to go to raise the money that you needed to raise to win a race. You went to labor, you went to the choice community, and you went to the Jewish community. But before you went to the Jewish community, you had a conversation with the lead AIPAC person in your state and they made it clear that you needed a paper on Israel. And so you called all your friends who already had a paper on Israel – that was designed by AIPAC – and we made that your paper. This was before there was a campaign manager, a policy director or a field director because you have got to raise money before you do all of that.”

“I have written more Israel papers that you can imagine,” Schriock said to laughter from the crowd. “I am from Montana. I barely knew where Israel was until I looked at a map, and the poor campaign manager would come in, or the policy director, and I’d be like, ‘Here is you paper on Israel. This is our policy.’ That means that these candidates who were farmers, school teachers, or business women, ended up having an Israel position without having any significant conversations with anybody.”

“It’s astounding. And when I look back at it, it’s shocking,” she said. “Jeremy Ben-Ami and I had the great pleasure of meeting each other during the Howard Dean campaign and one of the conversations we had was, ‘Oh my gosh. Is there really only one foreign policy on this?’ Because it felt like it.”

Schriock said that now that J Street exists, she is able to brief and guide candidates, out of 50+ federal candidates every year, on issues related to Israel by presenting them the various sides on the issues. ”So when something like the Iran deal came up – early in the election cycle when we already had candidates running who were not going to take a vote but were asked for a position – there was a lot of angst over what to do, and how to handle that,” she asserted. “And these are folks who have not been briefed, do not have access to these briefings, do not have any of the information other than what they are reading in the newspaper, and it was a really trying time to help guide the candidates. As someone who has been doing this now for two decades, I realized that I have freedom as an operative and a strategist to say to some of our candidates – which I, in fact, did – is do what you feel is right here. There’s enough energy around all of it now than there used to be. If you decide to be against the deal, there are going to be folks that are going to be with you. If you’re going to be for the deal, there’s going to be folks who are going to be with you.”

Biden thanks J Street for Iran deal campaign

Vice President Joe Biden thanked J Street for its lobbying and successful campaign in support of the Iran nuclear deal last summer as he addressed the annual J Street gala in Washington, D.C., on Monday.

“You deserve great credit for the [Iran deal],” Biden said. “Your organization played a critical role in mustering the support at home to get that deal through the United States Congress. You all stood up and your voices were heard throughout the community and beyond. you made sure that the voices of those who supported Israel and supported the deal were heard. Jewish Americans across this country as well as many Israel security experts, including former top military intelligence officials in Israel, they all agreed with you.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you for your effort. You have made the world a little bit safer,” the vice president said to loud applause. “And it payed off. The deal is working exactly as it should. Iran is keeping up their end of the bargain as it relates to the nuclear deal… Iran is further away from a nuclear weapon today than it was a year ago, and that’s a huge, huge step towards our security and the security of the entire region.”

According to Biden, Iran’s recent ballistic missiles activities have damaged Iran’s reputation in the world that has resulted in making the sanctions relief on trade and financial deals more complicated.

Biden also criticized Israel’s current settlement policy as he urged the Israelis and Palestinians to take “meaningful steps to reduce tension” in the Middle East region.

“I am going to say things that are very blunt,” Biden started off by saying. “No one has ever doubted I mean what I say. The problem is sometimes I say all that I mean, and I may tonight.”

“I have opposed settlements for more than three decades because I believe it is counterproductive for Israel’s security.” Biden told the pro-peace crowd. “The actions that Israel’s government has taken over the past several years – the steady and systematic expansion of settlements, the legalization of outposts, land seizures – they are moving us, and more importantly, they are moving Israel in the wrong direction. They are moving us toward a one-state reality, and that reality is dangerous.”

The vice president recalled getting into a shouting match with former Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1982 over the issue of settlements. He said the NY Times called the exchange during a closed session with 75 senators “the bitterest exchange of a highly-emotional confrontation.”

“The only way to guarantee Israel future security and its continued identity as a Jewish and democratic state; It’s the only way to ensure the dignity of the Palestinian people and provide for self determination they deserve – a two-state solution,” he said. “There is no other alternative.” Biden said that after long meetings with the Israeli and Palestinian leadership during his recent visit to Israel and Ramallah, he went away feeling discouraged about the prospects of peace in the immediate future. “There is, at the moment, no political will that I observed among Israelis and Palestinians to move forward with serious negotiations. Both sides have to take responsibility for counterproductive steps that undermine confidence in the negotiations.”

Biden also called on the Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas to condemn terror attacks when it occurs, to stop the incitement, and refrain from taking unilateral steps at international bodies.

Secretary of State John Kerry also address the gala. “We can’t just keep condemning the other side and not try to change lives and change the capacity to try and change choices,” Kerry said. “I can tell you that for these next nine months, we will not stop working to find a way to advance a two-state solution. We will continue to try to advance a two-state solution, the only solution because anything else will not be Jewish, and it will not be democratic.”

Will President Obama speak at J Street?

Speculation abounds that President Obama may refocus his attention, during the final year of his presidency, on the failed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Observers now wonder where and when?

Election year initiatives are typically fraught with complications — in a world of complicated issues, Israel and the Middle East play in a league of their own. Two weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined an invitation to meet with President Obama at the White House prior to AIPAC’s Policy Conference. The official reason was Netanyahu’s desire to avoid interfering in U.S. elections by meeting with any of the presidential hopefuls addressing AIPAC.

The two leaders are in midst of negotiating a “Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) security package. Gaps remain (The U.S. is offering $3.4 billion of annual aid, while Israel seeks $5 billion) and could have contributed to Netanyahu postponing a visit until an agreement can be signed in-person. But a WSJ report on March 7 pointed to another source of tension: an American administration discussing new ideas to revive peace talks before Obama leaves office, and an Israeli Prime Minister fearing an Oval Office ambush.

According to Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli diplomat who participated in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations following the Camp David summit in 2000, there’s no doubt that at some point between now and January 2017, Obama will seek to outline his own version of the Bill Clinton parameters before leaving office.

One opportunity currently being discussed, according to a half dozen insiders interviewed for this story, is the upcoming J Street National Gala on April 18 in Washington, D.C. Whether the President will take the opportunity to address a group closely aligned with his administration’s policies — that prides itself on being Obama’s ‘blocking back’ in Congress — has yet to be confirmed.

J Street spokeswoman Jessica Rosenblum did confirm to Jewish Insider that the group reached out to the White House and eagerly awaits a decision on which administration official will keynote the Gala. Vice President Joe Biden and WH Chief of Staff Denis McDonough have addressed J Street’s annual conference in prior years.

As detailed in Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent article on ‘The Obama Doctrine’, the President shows little interest, and perhaps a strong dislike of the D.C. foreign policy establishment. The opportunity to elevate J Street with a presidential address may be too great to pass up during the final year in office.

“I do know that the president is seriously considering making a major speech and presenting, what we call for a lack of a better term, the Obama parameters,” Pinkas told Jewish Insider. “I don’t know for a fact he would want to do this as early as April, but he could surprise us. But that said, he’s the president. He has every podium and every opportunity to do whatever he wants.”

Knesset Member Michael Oren (Kulanu), who served as Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S. (2009-2013) and has since been critical of the President’s handling of the U.S.-Israel relationship, told Jewish Insider in a phone interview, “It’s a possibility. I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility.”

“I know that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is close to his heart,” Oren explained. “If he can do anything on the diplomatic sphere, he is going to do it.”

Others were more dismissive, noting the challenge this would present to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton as she seeks to make additional inroads in a pro-Israel community weary of Donald Trump.

Aaron David Miller, an American Middle East analyst and Vice President for New Initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says there is no way Obama goes to J Street – or unveils anything prior the general election in the fall – that could potentially complicate Hillary Clinton’s White House bid.

“Why the President would go to J Street, given the nature of the relationship that exists right now, given the fact that he wants to elect her to succeed it, why would he want to complicate her life?” Miller told Jewish Insider in a phone interview. “I’m not sure it’s that much of a priority, and frankly, if he went to J Street and gave a pro-peace process speech it would probably just increase the gap between his words on one hand and what he was prepared to do on the other.”

Miller maintained that Obama would consider Hillary Clinton’s campaign before taking such a step. “Not since 1988 has a two-term president passed party control to a member of the same party,” he asserted. “That’s really important if he could manage to do that. That would mean between now and November trying to do things that don’t embarrass her, giving the Republican’s all kinds of ammunition and make life hard for her. Going to J Street, in my judgment, is just a needless aggravation. I don’t understand what it would achieve.”

While agreeing that such a speech could complicate matters for Clinton, Pinkas raised the possibility that Obama would outline his vision only once the MOU is signed, minimizing the risk to Clinton. “Once he signs the MOU, which will be worth anything between $3.6 and $4.1 billion annually, he could say ‘I just provided Israel’s security with an enhancement package that will support Israel. I care about Israel’s security. But! Israel must remain a Jewish democracy. I care about Israel losing its character,’” Pinkas explained. “Once he has the MOU in his pockets, you can’t really attack him. It will also make Hillary Clinton’s case easier.”

Dayan apologizes for calling J Street ‘Un-Jewish’

Designated Consul General in New York, Dani Dayan walked back his initial characterization of J Street as “un-Jewish” in a series of tweets of Thursday.

“Contrary to the headlines, I never called ]J Street] “un-Jewish” but only a specific action it took. Nevertheless, it was wrong,” Dayan tweeted.

As first reported by Jewish Insider, during an interview with i24News’ “FaceOff” program aired on Saturday, Dayan said the following: “I prefer the attitude of AIPAC to that of J Street, that endorses all the anti-Israel candidates – the more anti-Israeli you are, the more you are endorsed by J Street. That’s un-Jewish.”

J Street immediately repudiated the comments. “These kinds of slurs impugning our faith should simply be out-of-bounds for an official emissary of the Israeli government,” the group said in a statement. J Street proudly represent the mainstream beliefs of a large segment of pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans… Particularly in New York, where Mr. Dayan will be posted, [where] he will find the beliefs of many in the Jewish community more in line with our world view than his.”

Dayan later acknowledged that his comments were “somewhat undiplomatic.” But on Thursday, Dayan maintained that he was just responding to a commentator on the program, who suggested that certain AIPAC attitudes contradict Jewish values. “My claim was actually a JStreet attitude does,” he said. “Mistakenly, along with the gong to end the program, I used the short and undoubtedly wrong form.”

J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami accepted the apology, tweeting, “@dandayan really appreciate this. Have always valued engaging with you. Look forward to continuing to disagree in NY as we have in Israel!”

Hillary advised to acknowledge J Street at AIPAC

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was advised to assail Netanyahu for abandoning his commitments to the peace process and publicly acknowledge J Street during a 2010 speech at AIPAC’s Policy Conference in Washington, DC, newly published emails show.

In an email sent on March 21, 2010 – on the eve of her appearance at AIPAC, Sid Blumenthal advised Hillary, “Hold Bibi’s feet to the fire, remind everyone he was at Wye, his key participant event in the peace process, and that it was successful. Reassure all players of our commitment to the process and the solution.”

“Perhaps most controversial,” Blumenthal continued, “I would argue something you should do is that, while praising AIPAC, remind it in as subtle but also direct a way as you can that it does not have a monopoly over American Jewish opinion. Bibi is stage managing US Jewish organizations (and neocons, and the religious right, and whomever else he can muster) against the administration. AIPAC itself has become an organ of the Israeli right, specifically Likud. By acknowledging J Street, you give them legitimacy, credibility and create room within the American Jewish community for debate supportive of the administration’s pursuit of the peace process. Just by mentioning J Street in passing, AIPAC becomes a point on the spectrum, not the controller of the spectrum.”

Blumenthal sketched out a rough plan how the then Secretary of State should address the controversial issue during her remarks. “Some critics say that citizens presenting their views to their government is somehow wrong, that it is a lobby, as though the word “lobby” is not kosher,” he wrote. “However, I welcome a healthy debate. Only through the marketplace of ideas will sound policies to help resolve complicated and seemingly intransigent problems be developed. This administration values everybody’s views. They are important. You are important. We welcome views across the spectrum, from AIPAC to J Street. All these views are legitimate and must be heard and considered.”

Needless to say, Hillary did not heed to Sid’s advice. Instead, she commended Netanyahu “for embracing the vision of the two-state solution,” and “for acting to lift roadblocks and ease movement throughout the West Bank.” Adding, “Last June at Bar-Ilan University, Prime Minister Netanyahu put his country on the path to peace.”

Nevertheless, Hillary did adopt one line Blumenthal suggested as she addressed the peace process. “We are not condemned to perpetual conflict by history. There is an alternative history—the history of how we have overcome and resolved seemingly unbridgeable differences to make peace and create progress,” he advised her to say.

Here is what Hillary told the pro-Israel lobby: “Israel’s history is the story of brave men and women who took risks. They did the hard thing because they believed and knew it was right. We know that this dream was championed by Herzl and others that many said was impossible… Israel and the generations that have come have understood that the strongest among us is often the one who turns an enemy into a friend. Israel has shed more than its share of bitter tears. But for that dream to survive, for the state to flourish, this generation of Israelis must also take up the tradition and do what seems too dangerous, too hard, and too risky.”

But Hillary refrained from touching on sensitive issues, deciding not to mention even the word “J Street” during her speech.

Another email, dated March 20, 2010, reveals there were significant disagreements between Hillary’s aides over the content of the speech. “Having just sent in comments on the AIPAC draft (which were marked classified), I see a clear and relatively easy way for you to make a major difference here,” Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote. “I’m not naïve about the politics here, but we have a major opportunity and I hate to see us waste it.” But Jake Sullivan expressed his objection. In a reply email to Hillary, Sullivan wrote, “I’m going to call AMS now. I’m not sure I agree with her.” A half hour later, Sullivan sent another email: “Haven’t reached her yet, but now re-reading her suggestion, I think it might work. I’d want Mitchell’s take on what the response would be.”

Hillary/Sid AIPAC

Hillary/Sid AIPAC

RJC, J Street heads to discuss Israel in Las Vegas next month

The Republican Jewish Coalition and J Street are set to put aside their political differences for a brief pause to discuss the U.S.-Israel relationship next month in Las Vegas, according to a news release.

In a first-of-its-kind event, J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami and Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matt Brooks will appear together on March 9th at Temple Beth Sholom to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the relationship between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the policy preferences and beliefs of Jewish Americans, according to the organizers.

PBS’ Jon Ralston will serve as moderator.

The two organizations were on opposite sides of the aisle in last summer’s debate over the Iran nuclear agreement. J Street and the RJC are also fighting over the control of Congress in 2016, both invested in winning Congressional seats in battleground states across the country. J Street’s PAC has already announced it will spend as much as $3 million in over 100 local races across the country, challenging incumbents who have opposed the deal, while RJC aims to combat J Street race for race, and support the Republican incumbents.

In an interview with Jewish Insider in January, Brooks stated, “By definition, they [J Street] are anti-Israel and on the other side of where Israel is on critical issues such as the Iran deal.”

In return, Ben-Ami accused the RJC of wanting to “knock out” those who dared “to speak out when Netanyahu visits Congress to undermine the foreign policy of President Obama” and those who “dare to oppose the unrelenting expansion of settlements undermining Israel’s long-term security, democracy and Jewish character.”

According to J Street’s spokeswoman, Jessica Rosenblum, “The [March 9] event will emphasize the need for civil discourse around Israel in the Jewish community, as part of a “Year of Dialogue” series sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern Nevada.”

Sanders says he has consulted with J Street, Arab American Institute on Middle East

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said he took advice on the Middle East from J Street and the Arab American Institute.

The Vermont Independent senator, mounting a tough challenge to front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton for the nomination, has been under pressure to provide details on his foreign policy.

Clinton, a former secretary of state, has an array of foreign policy advisers, while Sanders lists none as formally advising his campaign, which until now has focused mostly on income inequality.

“We’ve talked to people like Jim Zogby, talked to the people on J Street to get a broad perspective of the Middle East,” Sanders said Sunday on “Meet the Press.” Zogby is a founder and the president of the Arab American Institute.

Both groups confirmed conversations with Sanders, whom they said was one of several candidates with whom they consulted.

“Effective advocacy organizations provide their views and advice to campaigns,” said Jessica Rosenblum, a spokeswoman for J Street, a liberal Jewish Middle East policy group. “We’ve done that broadly in this cycle, without favor or endorsement.”

Both groups have clashed with the pro-Israel center and right, and Sanders has called for tougher pressure on Israel to make concessions in peace talks.

Sanders also has defended Israel from attacks from the far left, saying it has a right to defend itself from rocket attacks and from groups that seek its elimination. Additionally, he has been a regular among the majority of lawmakers who drop into the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Clinton’s campaign, meantime, is pounding Sanders for what it says is his naivete on the Middle East, honing in on his pledge to “normalize” relations with Iran in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal, made during a January debate.

Clinton has argued that Iran still retains its pariah status for its backing of terrorism and its human rights abuses, and its compliance with the nuclear deal must be closely monitored. Sanders agrees that Iran remains a bad actor but says that normalization is likelier to create the conditions that would spur change.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who backs Clinton, convened a conference call on Sunday for reporters of Clinton’s foreign policy advisers, who picked apart Sanders’ proposals.

“Iran still remains the country trying to destroy Israel, it has a lot of history of cheating on sanctions,” said Daniel Benjamin, who was the coordinator for counterterrorism for Clinton when she was secretary of state, and who lives in New Hampshire, where Sanders and Clinton are facing off in a primary fight on Tuesday.

Expressions calling for the “warming of relations” between the United States and Iran are mistaken, he said.

J Street takes aim at GOP senators who opposed Iran deal

J Street will focus this year on unseating Republican senators in Illinois and Wisconsin who led opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.

In an interview with JTA Friday, Ben Shnider, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group’s political director, said the group would focus on defeating Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.

“They were two of the biggest detractors of the deal,” said Shnider, referring to the nuclear deal between Iran and six major powers. “Iran is being defanged,” he said of its nuclear rollback confirmed this weekend by U.N. inspectors, “and they stood in the way.”

The deal, in which Iran gained relief from international sanctions in exchange for rolling back elements of its nuclear program, went into effect this weekend after U.N. inspectors confirmed Iran had met its obligations under the agreement.

J Street is backing former Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who was ousted by Johnson in the 2010 Republican sweep. The group has yet to settle on an opponent to Kirk, although the candidate likely to emerge from the state’s Democratic primary on March 15 is Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., whom J Street has backed in the past for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Kirk and Johnson are considered among the most vulnerable GOP incumbents, serving swing states in a presidential election year, when Democratic turnout is high.

J Street’s 2016 campaign, rolled out Friday on its political action committee’s website, includes 83 candidates who have agreed to accept the group’s endorsement — less than the 95 it endorsed in 2014, although Shnider said the group ultimately hopes to reach 110 endorsees.

A key aim of the rollout is preempting attacks on Democrats who backed President Barack Obama in his successful bid to stop Congress from killing the Iran deal. Centrist and right-wing pro-Israel officials said last summer that Democrats who backed the deal would be seen as vulnerable.

No such assault on Democrats who backed the deal has emerged yet, although NORPAC, a pro-Israel political action committee, has been aggressive in raising funds for the minority of Democrats who opposed the deal, among them Reps. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., Brad Sherman, D-Calif., Ted Deutch, D-Fla. and Grace Meng, D-N.Y.

And despite the angry talk over the summer, it’s not clear whether deal backers truly are vulnerable.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which led opposition to the deal, last week released a video emphasizing the importance of bipartisanship in cultivating support for Israel. AIPAC does not endorse candidates, but its members closely read its messages to determine where their political donations go.

Deborah Saxon, AIPAC’s assistant director for policy and government affairs, says in the video that casting Israel as a partisan issue is “shortsighted.”

“When it comes to strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship, our work relies on the support of both political parties, and today it has never been more important than to forge that kind of bipartisan support,” Saxon says.

J Street’s list this year notably does not include any Republicans. Shnider said that the group and Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., its sole 2014 Republican endorsee running this year, had come to a mutual agreement to end the relationship.

Jones survived a well-funded onslaught against his 2014 bid by PACs associated with the Republic Jewish Coalition and the Emergency Committee for Israel, a right-wing group established in part to neutralize J Street.

Besides Feingold, J Street’s Jewish endorsees this year include: Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.; Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif.; Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif.; Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo.; Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.; Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky.; and Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.

Conservative movement praises Netanyahu for regrets on Arab voting statement

Conservative movement leaders applauded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s regrets for an Election Day statement about Arab-Israelis and decried a pledge by J Street to press Jewish groups not to spend in the West Bank.

“The Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism welcome and applaud today’s apology by Prime Minister Netanyahu during a meeting with minority groups in Israel,” said thestatement issued Monday from the groups, “calling out specifically his regret that ‘I know that the things I said a few days ago hurt some citizens in Israel, the Arab-Israeli citizens’ and that ‘this was not my intention and I am sorry.’”

The Rabbinical Assembly had sharply criticized Netanyahu for his Election Day appeal to voters of his Likud Party to get to the polls because Arabs were coming out in “droves.” The R.A. called Netanyahu’s language “indefensible.”

The statement Monday also said the relationship between U.S. Jews and Israel was “sacrosanct,” although there is “room for honest response to actions that trouble us.”

“What our community needs is more cooperation and unity in working together toward strengthening the U.S.-Israel partnership, not creating new divisions by seeking to attack fellow Jewish organizations or create new points of conflict,” the statement said.

A source authorized to speak on behalf of the Rabbinical Assembly told JTA that this was intended as criticism of J Street’s plan, announced this weekend at the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group’s national conference in Washington, to press Jewish groups to clarify whether their funds are expended in the West Bank.

Why J Street loves Jim Baker

J Street’s youthful activists delivered a big chunk of conference time to James Baker, an octogenarian known for cursing out their parents.

Baker, who as George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state back in 1991 is reported to have said “F— the Jews” since they don’t vote for Republicans anyway, delivered a well-received speech to the conference Monday night that was interrupted repeatedly by applause.

A third of the 3,000 people attending the conference this week are students, born after Baker left government and with no living memory of Baker’s leaked riposte to a fellow Cabinet official who worried how Jews would react to a long forgotten piece of diplomacy.

But it would be facile to chalk up the admiration for Baker to short political memories, or to mere pranksterism — a tweaking of the Jewish establishment by inviting its bugbear, a supposed icon of heartland American hostility to the Jews, to be a keynote speaker. There are, in fact, two substantive reasons for J Street to cultivate Jim Baker: One readily on display Monday evening, and one that didn’t get mentioned.

First, what was not said: Baker, 84, is back in the news because he is a lead foreign policy adviser to his old boss’s son, Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor now angling for the presidency.

J Street longs to be associated with the word “bipartisan” the way white wants to join with bread in Baker’s home state of Texas, and yet the lobby remains overwhelmingly Democratic. Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) — he of Freedom Fries fame — a southern Republican whose eccentric conspiracy thinking seem drawn from all-caps newsletters, was one of only two Republicans J Street’s PAC endorsed last year, a match made for buffs of political exotica — the excitable embracing the eccentric.

Baker and the younger Bush represent a different universe entirely — the GOP establishment defined. An alliance with the Bush campaign would go some distance to erasing J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami’s famous quote in 2009 about being President Barack Obama’s “blocking back” in Congress, a comment that still haunts the group like a bad date who fell asleep on the couch.

The more obvious reason Baker got the room for an hour was his style: He and Bush stood up to Israel and the pro-Israel lobby and were proud of it.

As secretary of state, Baker embodied a robust diplomacy that unapologetically expressed American power — power not, incidentally, exercised solely against the government of Israel. Baker recalled at the outset of his J Street talk that his administration saw the first major defeat of Saddam Hussein, in Kuwait, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the liberation of eastern Europe.

And a week after Netanyahu appeared to have trashed the two-state solution, a month after he defied President Barack Obama with a speech to Congress, it was Baker’s standing up to Israel that excited this crowd. In his genteel homestate drawl, Baker described the crisis over the 1991 $10 billion in loan guarantees Israel wanted to help absorb a flood of Soviet Jews, and how it was resolved.

We asked for assurances from Israel that the loan guarantees would not be used in any way to promote settlement policies with which we disagree

I was told personally by Prime Minister Shamir that Israel’s friends in Washington had told him Israel could get the money from Congress, and as a result they would not agree to postpone their request for the loan guarantees.

After a battle royal on Capitol Hill, Congress ended up voting down a bill that would have granted Israel the loan guarantees over President Bush’s objection.

Translation: I stood up to a right-wing prime minister who was getting bad advice from AIPAC, and we won.

What’s for J Street not to like?

Hillel again taking heat over limiting Israel debate

Hillel President Eric Fingerhut’s decision to withdraw from the upcoming J Street conference has again drawn Hillel into conflict over the boundaries of acceptable criticism of Israel.

Some two years after the Open Hillel movement emerged to challenge Hillel International’s guidelines for Israel activities, which prohibit campus chapters from hosting speakers that support divestment from Israel or deny its right to exist, the organization is under fire again for toeing a line on Israel that some see as alienating to liberal Jewish students.

Fingerhut had initially planned to attend the conference, but later backed out, citing “concerns regarding my participation amongst other speakers who have made highly inflammatory statements against the Jewish state.”

J Street blasted the decision, with Sarah Turbow, the director of the liberal lobby’s campus arm, claiming the Hillel leader had chosen to please his donors instead of engaging thousands of students.

But even within Hillel, several current and former directors told JTA that Fingerhut’s decision is part of the organization’s general rightward drift on Israel and its growing deference to the demands of major supporters.

“I think that as the American Jewish community turns further and further to the right, Hillel has simply kept pace with it,” said Rabbi James Ponet, who became director of the Yale Hillel in 1981 and served as university chaplain prior to starting a sabbatical in 2014. “When I entered Hillel, its fundraising was quite minimal. It’s become a major fundraising organization.”

Ponet said that as a university-focused organization, Hillel’s mission should not be to police the boundaries of acceptable criticism of Israel but to expose students to a wide variety of views. Refusing to speak to J Street, Ponet said, is not in keeping with that mission.

“Hillel in that sense, to my sadness, has abdicated or abandoned an understanding — if it ever had it — of higher education,” Ponet said.

The latest fracas began on March 9, when Fingerhut announced he would not appear at the J Street conference later in the month. Asked which speakers Fingerhut found problematic, Hillel’s chief administrative officer, David Eden, named Saeb Erekat, the longtime chief Palestinian negotiator who had recently compared Israel to the Islamic State, or ISIS.

The explanation raised eyebrows in many quarters. While Erekat indeed has a history of making inflammatory statements, both Israel and the U.S. State Department have long dealt with him in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. And according to J Street, Erekat’s presence at the conference was made public three days before Fingerhut accepted an invitation to address members of J Street U there.

Hillel officials denied that Fingerhut knew about Erekat’s plans to attend, but the organization subsequently appeared to walk back its original explanation.

“I don’t want to pin it down on one specific issue,” a Hillel spokesman told JTA on March 12 when asked if Erekat’s presence was the impetus for Fingerhut’s withdrawal. Asked if the organization had bowed to donor pressure, the spokesman said the decision had been made in consultation with the “full range” of Hillel stakeholders and did not foreclose the possibility that Fingerhut might engage with J Street in the future.

“Eric sought counsel from across the full breadth of the political spectrum of Hillel leadership and there was broad, broad consensus that now was not the time,” the spokesman said.

Jeremy Brochin, who served as Hillel director at the University of Pennsylvania for 23 years before his retirement in 2010 and publicly criticized Fingerhut in a Facebook post last week, told JTA that he had spoken to several current and former Hillel directors who were uncomfortable with the decision.

“Our role is to engage students and to help students in their Jewish growth and on their Jewish journey,” Brochin said. “That conversation would be challenging in both ways — we would challenge students and they would challenge us.”

Several Hillel directors contacted by JTA declined to comment on the situation, but Fingerhut did receive praise from some quarters. Arinne Braverman, executive director of the Hillel at Northeastern University, said her campus is in the midst of debating a resolution to divest from Israel and Fingerhut’s stance set an inspiring example for her students. (On Monday, Northeastern student leaders rejected the divestment measure.)

“I’m very appreciative on behalf of Hillel that Eric took a stand,” Braverman said. “We stand for something. It’s important to be clear about our values.”

Other Hillel directors took a middle ground, expressing sympathy for the difficult position in which Fingerhut found himself.

“My feeling is that he was in a no-win situation,” said Andy Gitelson, the executive director of the University of Oregon Hillel, who participated in a series of conference calls with Fingerhut last week about the decision. “He was extremely troubled by this, and he was not thrilled about having to make this type of a decision.”

On the ground, Hillel directors say that Hillel and J Street U chapters are closer than the national dispute would imply. J Street U chapters are often affiliated with their campus Hillel, and a number of Hillel directors will be attending the J Street conference in Washington.

Even Swarthmore and Vassar, two schools that declared themselves Open Hillels and promised not to abide by Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership, which prohibits chapters from hosting speakers that support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, until this week had remained within the Hillel fold. On Monday night, however, Swarthmore Hillel’s student board voted to drop its affiliation with Hillel International and change its name, citing the parent organization’s restrictions on Israel issues.

Fingerhut has also met privately with Open Hillel leaders. In the statement announcing his withdrawal, Fingerhut emphasized that student members of J Street U are welcome “as members of the entire Hillel family.”

“While there may be a disconnect between the parent organizations of J Street and Hillel International in general,” Gitelson said, “the local level is where a lot of relationships are happening and partnerships are happening.”

Hillel, we are not your tools but your partners

When Hillel International President Eric Fingerhut announced his decision to withdraw a commitment to speak to over 1,000 students at the upcoming J Street National Conference, he expressed only one major regret.

In his statement last week, Fingerhut lamented that he would miss the opportunity to “thank those who have been active in the fight against BDS.” Indeed, he made clear that the reason he was interested in attending in the first place was “to thank those who have joined in the fight against BDS and anti-Semitism on college campuses, and to urge everyone to take up this crucial cause.”

Fingerhut is right in that hundreds of J Street U students have fought BDS campaigns on their campuses. This is because we believe in a pragmatic solution — two states for two peoples as the only way to guarantee self-determination and sovereignty for both Israelis and Palestinians.

The international BDS movement rejects the two-state solution and offers no workable solution of its own. It does not recognize Israel’s right to exist or the need for a two-state solution, nor does it differentiate between Israel within the Green Line, Israel’s pre-1967 borders, and the occupied West Bank. Indeed, it deliberately works to obscure and deny that there is such a difference.

Yes, J Street U opposes BDS. But fighting BDS is not the reason we exist.

We are a pro-Israel movement that believes to be truly pro-Israel one must work for a better, safer future that ensures Israel’s survival as a Jewish democracy. It further means opposing the ongoing occupation that continues to be the biggest obstacle standing in the way of that better future.

We did not invite Eric Fingerhut to our conference simply to speak about BDS. We invited him to discuss how Hillel International can partner with us to promote and advance a two-state solution.

Hillel’s official Israel guidelines state that “Hillel is steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders as a member of the family of nations.” The two-state solution is clearly the only plausible way of supporting that vision of Israel, a vision that J Street U passionately believes in and works toward, with the support of campus Hillel staff, on over 60 campuses.

Yet we have not seen Mr. Fingerhut or Hillel International’s leadership demonstrate any interest in our efforts. Where are their initiatives in support of two states? What have they done to encourage the thousands of student activists working for such a solution?

Rather than empowering youth to become active in the Jewish community around the issues they are passionate about, which so many other Hillel professionals do, Eric Fingerhut has said to J Street U and to the rest of the Jewish community that the only way to be pro-Israel is to fight BDS. When 1,000 passionate pro-Israel student activists are regarded by Hillel’s leader as merely foot soldiers in a vitriolic campus war with the BDS movement, something has gone wrong. It begs the question: Is Hillel a pro-Israel organization or just an anti-BDS organization?

Moreover, if Mr. Fingerhut does mean to fight BDS, he’s modeling the least effective way to do so. His office claims that he withdrew from the conference because he could not be listed in the same program alongside Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator for the Palestinian Authority. What example does it set for students and for campus discourse to walk out on a conversation and refuse to speak simply because someone else (speaking the next day!) might say something with which you strongly disagree?

The late Jewish philanthropist Edgar Bronfman, a major supporter and friend of Hillel, once said, “True learning comes from engaging in discourse with those who are profoundly different. Your mind may not be swayed, but the interaction may open up your eyes.”

Just a few weeks ago, Hillel participated in a national event that called on students “to commit to disagree more constructively.” Mr. Fingerhut’s actions seem to indicate that for him, these are just empty words. If anything, his logic echoes many in the BDS movement that we should exclude and silence those with whom we disagree.

As a tool to combat BDS, this approach is useless. It only alienates and angers the concerned and conflicted students who we should be engaging. If Mr. Fingerhut’s mission in addressing J Street U students was to instruct us in how to defeat BDS, he has failed there as well.

We are sorry that Hillel’s president won’t join us, but we will continue to work for peace, security and civil rights for Israelis and Palestinians nonetheless. We will continue to oppose BDS in order to better support the two-state solution and an end to the occupation. And we will continue to ask our communal leaders not to use us as tools, but to work with us as partners.

(Gabriel T. Erbs, a senior at Portland State University, is the northwest representative to the J Street U national student board. Amna Farooqi, a junior at the University of Maryland, is the southeast representative to the J Street U national student board.)

Note to Netanyahu: Stop destroying the US-Israel relationship

By now it is clear that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s disastrously-timed speech to Congress has seriously damaged the US-Israel relationship – but the danger is that he has embarked on a course that will make that damage much worse and perhaps permanent.

Countless analysts, Israelis and Americans, from the left and the right, are writing that they cannot recall a time when this crucial relationship has been so compromised. The relationship “has never been so terrible as it is today,” Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser associated with the Israeli right told the New York Times.

Eytan Gilboa, an expert on Israeli-American relations at Bar-Ilan University, told Israel Radio that it was clear the longstanding bipartisanship that underpinned the alliance “has now been badly broken.”

Writing in the Washington Post, Tufts University professor Daniel Drezner said that if the United States and five other world powers reached a nuclear deal with Iran and if Netanyahu were reelected in Israel’s March 17 election, “the effects on the bilateral relationship over the next two years will be devastating.”

One of the most important tasks of any Israeli Prime Minister has been to nurture and tend his country’s partnership with the one strategic ally it can count on – the United States. Israelis understand very well that this relationship is the only thing that stands between them and almost total international isolation.

As Dov Zakheim writes in Foreign Policy, whatever his personal feelings about President Obama, Netanyahu needs American support on a host of issues. Israel needs US diplomatic support in international organizations; it needs American military equipment and US dollars to buy that equipment. “The list goes on. And on. Mr. Netanyahu is putting all of this in jeopardy.”

Why are people across the political spectrum, Republicans as well as Democrats, so upset? First of course, it’s the timing of the speech, two weeks before the Israeli election. Former Israeli Deputy National Security Adviser Chuck Freilich wrote that Netanyahu has “subordinated Israel’s most crucial strategic interests to election considerations.”

Second, it’s the strong feeling that Netanyahu has lined up with the Republicans and no longer cares to have a relationship with President Obama in particular and Democrats in general. His personally-chosen Washington ambassador, Ron Dermer, is a former Republican political operative. Netanyahu’s blunt rejection of an invitation to meet privately with Senate Democrats during his visit, no doubt on Dermer’s advice, has solidified the feeling that for the first time in history, Israel’s Prime Minister has thrown in his lot with one US political party.

“Since when does an Israeli prime minister say no to a meeting with Democrats?” said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York. He added: “By the way, their Israeli voting record is impeccable. Not good, not very good, impeccable. The Democrats extend a hand of sorts and he says no? This defies explanation.”

Thirdly, there is the strong sense that this speech is just the opening shot of what will be a long and withering fight between Obama and Netanyahu plus his Republican allies over the Iran deal if there is one. Netanyahu is determined to kill an agreement which the President is convinced will make the whole world, including Israel, safer. The Republicans are his willing tool. They will bring resolution after resolution, bill after bill, congressional letter after congressional letter, trying to hem in Obama, block implementation of the deal, refuse to relax sanctions, refuse budgetary authority, attach riders – whatever works.

The Republicans in the House have voted 56 times to repeal Obama Care – and they’re willing to use the same tactics against the Iran deal. Netanyahu will back them every step of the way. Supporters of Israel will have to choose between their President and Netanyahu. Many will back Obama. The impression, already now forming, will harden that support for Israel is increasingly a partisan issue.

Nothing could be more damaging for Israel’s future. We have to hope that Netanyahu, deep in a hole of his own making, decides after this ill-conceived speech, to stop digging.

Alan Elsner is Vice President of Communications for J Street

J Street: Sometimes fans do more harm than good

This essay is part of a continuing dialogue on the nature of pro-Israel activism. 

The disagreement between J Street and other pro-Israel groups continues. 

In a recent op-ed, J Street’s Alan Eisner contended that Israel needs “fans, not cheerleaders,” arguing that American pro-Israel groups mindlessly root for Israel while fans would be more judicious, criticizing it for the occupation and the settlements.

That is the rub. J Street is fixated on blaming Israel for failed peace efforts and wants the United States to pressure the Jewish state to unilaterally bring about the two-state solution. But that view ignores dangerous realities.

It is not cheerleading to respect Israel’s right to require that a two-state solution does not turn into a repeat of the Gaza withdrawal, with Hamas taking over and escalating attacks against Jewish civilians, and that Israel’s ability to protect its citizens from terrorism is ensured.

It is not mindless cheerleading to point out that anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incitement pervades Palestinian society. Terrorists are glorified, town squares are named in their honor and the Palestinian Authority continues to reward with handsome salaries Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails who have been convicted of terrorism. The greater the crime, the higher the salary.

It is not mindless cheerleading to emphasize that Israel offered precisely the two-state solution that J Street advocates but that Palestinian leaders rejected in 2000, 2001 and 2008. Those who do not hold the Palestinian leadership accountable are infantilizing them and perpetuating obstacles to peace.

It is not blind cheerleading to stress that Israel has reason to be cautious in an increasingly unstable and threatening region. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is spreading — recent reports indicate that it has followers in the West Bank and Gaza. Hezbollah is staking out positions in the Syrian Golan and openly threatens Israel. Hamas is repairing relations with Iran, remains pledged to the murder of Jews everywhere and the obliteration of Israel, and has resumed building cross-border terror attack tunnels. Islamist extremists are gaining footholds from Yemen to Libya. And Iran continues its genocidal rhetoric against the Jewish state, even as the outcome of negotiations about ending its nuclear weapons capability remains uncertain.

It is not cheerleading to counter the dangerous anti-Israel propaganda of the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS) that seeks to defame and delegitimize Israel. Although J Street opposes BDS, it prioritizes criticizing Israel and highlighting its shortcomings, which adds to the chorus of condemnation.

Eisner and J Street ignore these realities more than do pro-Israel groups who bring the issues to public attention.  

J Street’s mission contradicts the decades-old policy of a bilateral, negotiated solution to the conflict. J Street hopes to marshal popular and official American support for the U.S. to impose a specific solution. J Street disparages existing pro-Israel groups, charging that they have worked against American and Israeli interests and against peace, earning the praise of Stephen Walt, co-author of the discredited and frequently anti-Semitic “The Israel Lobby.”

J Street drew a moral equivalence between Hamas and Israel during the 2008-9 war, and a prominent J Street member attempted to facilitate Judge Richard Goldstone meeting with congressional leaders about the discredited Goldstone Report that accused Israel of war crimes — before Goldstone himself recanted. During last summer’s Hamas-Israel war, as Hamas barraged Israel with more than 4,000 rockets and Hamas’ cross-border attack tunnels were exposed, J Street refused to participate in a Boston solidarity rally for Israel.

J Street opposes bipartisan legislation for renewed sanctions against Iran, demanding that Congress wait for the outcome of negotiations, even though many argue that this legislation would help the negotiations, and Israel views Iranian nuclear weapons capability as an existential threat and supports such a measure. And why would J Street have endorsed many 2014 congressional candidates known for their anti-Israel views?

J Street and Eisner feel it is important to criticize Israel’s policies but they don’t seem to feel the same need to criticize the Palestinian leadership, which has refused to make peace, continue negotiations, do the hard work of state building or denounce terrorism. One-sided criticism of Israel will not build up the Palestinians or bring us closer to peace.

It is not cheerleading to highlight Israel’s extraordinary accomplishments in re-establishing the Jewish state as a robust, pluralistic, progressive democracy, and in turning a third-world economy into a first-world economy on the cutting edge of innovations that benefits the world. That does not mean agreeing with all of Israel’s policies, but it does mean countering the anti-peace extremism and factual distortions that are now invading mainstream discourse. The Jewish state deserves no less as it navigates how to survive and thrive in a very dangerous neighborhood. 

Roz Rothstein is the CEO and co-founder of StandWithUs. Roberta Seid, Ph.D., is the education and research director of StandWithUs. 

Leahy, a senior Democratic senator, says he’ll stay away from Netanyahu speech

Sen. Patrick Leahy became the most senior Senate Democrat to say he will not attend Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress.

“The unfortunate way that House leaders have unilaterally arranged this, and then heavily politicized it, has demolished the potential constructive value of this Joint Meeting,” Leahy (D-Vt.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee and a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, said Tuesday on his website.

Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, on Jan. 21 invited Netanyahu to address Congress, in part to rebut President Barack Obama’s claims that nuclear talks between Iran and the major powers were constructive.

“They have orchestrated a tawdry and high-handed stunt that has embarrassed not only Israel but the Congress itself,” Leahy said.

So far, including Leahy, three Democratic senators have said they will not attend the speech to a joint session of Congress on March 3. The others, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who caucuses with the Democrats, and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), are Jewish. Schatz was not attending “because it does more harm than good to the bipartisan U.S.-Israel alliance,” according to a CNN reporter posting on Twitter.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, persisted in insisting he would come.

“I am going to the United States not because I seek a confrontation with the president, but because I must fulfill my obligation to speak up on a matter that affects the very survival of my country,” he said in a three-minute televised address to Israelis on Tuesday evening.

J Street, a liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, meantime wrote to Congress members urging them to prevail upon Boehner to postpone the speech, in part because its March 3 date is just two weeks before Israeli elections. It noted that other Jewish leaders have objected to the timing, and also that Netanyahu had in a previous election used a speech to Congress in a campaign ad.

The Zionist Organization of America, meanwhile, in a statement urged Jewish leaders to back away from calling for a postponement, saying such pleadings echoed American Jewish groups in the 1930s and ’40s who allegedly tried to silence Jewish activists who warned about the perils facing Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that two liberal grassroots groups, including MoveOn, are considering actions that would pressure Democrats to stay away from the speech.

Where does American funding for Israel go?

Where does American Jewish communal funding for Israel go? Do we have a right to know? 

As an American Jew who advocates for a two-state solution and Israeli democracy, I often hear that if I want to advocate for my vision of Israel’s future, I have to move to Israel. If I wanted to sit on my couch, share “Stand With Us” Facebook statuses, and cheerlead for the right-wing Likud party, there would be no pushback. But dare to support an end to the occupation of the West Bank, or to express our belief that it’s vital for Israel for to live up to its founding principles of democracy and civil rights, the response is clear: either hop on an El Al flight tomorrow, or kindly keep your opinions to yourself.

Defenders of this kind of hypocrisy argue that it’s justifiable because the beliefs of groups like J Street are held only by a tiny, anomalous minority. In fact, the opposite is true. Eighty percent of American Jews want a two-state solution. That same 80% supports some level of reduction of Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank. Do four out of every five American Jews need to move to Israel before they are allowed to express these opinions in public?

Why do our communal leaders ignore this majority? J Street U President Benjy Cannon has a theory. Quoted in a recent article, Cannon suggests that if Jewish communal leaders actually engaged with Americans who shared our vision of Israel’s future, they’d be forced to “acknowledge the need to talk about the occupation; to admit that they are not living up the values of their own community. And they’d rather not face that.” 

One way to avoid facing up to the truth is to complicate and obscure it. I’d like to believe our communal support for Israel goes toward causes that reflect Jewish values and a concern for Israel’s long-term security and legitimacy – and not to the occupation. I cannot know for sure, though, as most Jewish communal philanthropy is not transparent. And where there is transparency, it is sometimes very clear that this funding contradicts our values and Israel’s interests.

Growing up, I never gave much thought to stuffing my tzedakah money into the blue Jewish National Fund boxes at my BBYO meetings and synagogue. I thought they were just iconic symbols of righteous charity; I probably should’ve looked at the Green Line-less map of Israel on the side of the box more closely. Last year,  investigative journalist Raviv Drucker uncovered a list of 14 projects the JNF secretly funded in the settlements. Those blue boxes have real consequences for democracy in Israel. Beyond the JNF, Rabbi Jill Jacobs showed how $6 million dollars of American tax write-offs to non-profits funded settlement growth. And week, Eric Goldstein published an article outlining even more tax-deductible charities currently supporting settlement expansion.

That funding is no accident – it is part and parcel of long-term policy and ideology among some key communal institutions. At a recent panel on Jewish Agency-funded study abroad programs, Chairman Natan Sharansky told students at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly to see the controversial West Bank settlement Ariel “in the same light” as Tel Aviv. Indeed, his organization now funds a MASA program at Ariel University, routinely sending American gap year students into the heart of the occupation. 

With negotiations nowhere in sight and the status quo as entrenched as ever, supporters of Israel who believe the conflict can only be solved with two states have enough to despair about. That’s what makes this abdication of responsibility sting even more.  

We need the leaders of the organized Jewish community to answer these questions on behalf of their organizations. If continued settlement expansion doesn’t align with their values, as 80% of American Jews say it doesn’t, a public statement to that effect would be a great first step in demonstrating the moral courage and responsible leadership that this issue has been desperately lacking. Beyond this, our leaders should be crystal clear about which side of the Green Line they have been sending the money we contribute – and about where they intend to send it going forward.

Until we have transparency, we American Jews cannot understand the full scope of the role we are playing in the situation in Israel today.

As American Jews who proudly support Israel and proudly oppose the occupation, we firmly believe our community must wrestle with, acknowledge, and ultimately act to change its complicity in policies and actions that have made Israel less democratic and less secure. We hope all who agree will join us in asking for transparency, responsibility, and change. Now is the time to act. And you don’t need to hop on a flight in order to do so.

J Street, StandWithUs debate best way to support Israel

Representatives of StandWithUs (SWU) and J Street — two Jewish organizations with very different takes on Israel — faced off Jan. 13 in a debate on why their respective group is a better friend to the Jewish state.

The free event, at Temple Judea in Tarzana, featured attorney, writer and UCLA graduate student Philippe Assouline in support of SWU, and J Street Vice President for Communications Alan Elsner. Temple Judea’s Rabbi Joshua Aaronson served as moderator for the hour-long debate, which attracted more than 400 attendees. 

The two organizations are often pitted against each other. SWU is a pro-Israel education-and-advocacy organization that concentrates resources on bolstering Israel’s image on college campuses, which are becoming increasingly anti-Israel. J Street is a progressive organization that supports a two-state solution, often criticizes the Israeli government and lobbies United States congressional leaders on legislation related to Israel.

Aaronson began the night by asking the debaters to discuss public perceptions about their respective organizations and to comment on why those perceptions even exist. Assouline blamed J Street, along with pro-Palestinian organizations, for marginalizing SWU to the extent that it is seen as little more than a mouthpiece of the Israeli government.  

“Those two things combined have given StandWithUs a completely undeserved right-wing reputation. If I had to put a label on the people I work with, it would be center-left,” he said. “There is not one person I work with who is against Palestinian self-determination and who has come out vocally against a two state-solution,”

As for J Street, which is generally seen as more of a left-wing group, any misperceptions about it come from a different place, Elsner said.

“Since J Street’s inception, there have been people in the Jewish-American establishment who felt threatened by our organization, and have tried very, very hard to spread falsehoods and dishonesty and basically blackmail the organization,” he said, “and I find it bizarre.”
Each speaker was not afraid to throw darts at the other’s organization. Assouline called J Street a lobbying organization — and not in a good way — saying, “J Street doesn’t merely try to inject new voices into the discussion; it is a lobbying group that tries to influence American policy, to change Israeli policy over and against the wishes of the Israeli electorate, sometimes.”

After the debate, Elsner described SWU to the Journal as “just a classic hasbarah cheerleading group that pushes the case of the Israeli government. That’s perfectly legitimate, but let’s not call them what they’re not.”

Another source of tension between the two groups is the documentary “The J Street Challenge,” which takes a critical view of J Street. Attorney and author Alan Dershowitz is among those who speak negatively about the progressive group in the film.

SWU did not finance “The J Street Challenge,” but it has organized screenings of it in Los Angeles and elsewhere. During last week’s debate, Elsner criticized the journalistic integrity of the film, indicating that J Street leaders did not have a real opportunity to participate in it.

Aaronson repeatedly asked the audience to withhold its applause for both debaters, but people applauded anyway, including for SWU’s Assouline’s comment about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement on college campuses: “This is a campaign to kosherize killing Jews, to kosherize terrorism and to make the eliminationist rhetoric of the Palestinians noble. It is an abuse of compassion to disguise hatred as concern, and it is not about 1967, to my distress; it is about 1948.” 

When an audience member asked if the two speakers could envision their respective organizations ever working together, Assouline said he believes middle ground lies in combating the BDS movement, which has made the climate on college campuses so hostile toward Israel that supporting the country has become an act of courage. Still, Elsner said, combating BDS requires a broad appeal beyond pro-Israel groups, which SWU lacks.

In an interview following the debate, Ilanit Maghen, 31, a Santa Monica-based architect who attended the event, expressed frustration with both sides.

“It just doesn’t make sense that within ourselves as Jews — American Jews, Israeli Jews, whatever you call it — that there is such a split in belief. This is what doesn’t work in my opinion about the peace process,” she said. “I don’t support anything. I support peace. I support people who support peace.”

Why Jews still back Obama

This entire week, people kept sending me emails with this screaming subject line: “OBAMA MULLING SANCTIONS ON ISRAEL.VERIFICATION ON GOOGLE.” 

Neither turned out to be true: Obama is not mulling sanctions, and Google doesn’t verify the fact (or any fact, for that matter). In fact, Google links to stories that cite a single Haaretz report saying the Obama administration is upset about Israeli plans to continue settlement in East Jerusalem. That is not a secret, and it is a concern shared by previous administrations of both parties. But some right-wing journalist decided to substitute the word “concern” for “sanctions.” And an army of forwarders took it from there, stoking the anti-Obama flames among Israel supporters.

This has been going on since the 2008 presidential race, and I predict it will never end, not even if Obama stands up in Jerusalem and declares his unwavering support for a secure Israel, which he did; not even if he promotes unprecedented levels of high-level security cooperation between America and Israel, which he did; and not even if he stands before the Arab world and demands the recognition of Israeli rights, which he did. 

And here’s what’s truly amazing: The scare tactic is not working.

In the midst of all the coverage of the Republican sweep of the midterm elections, one astonishing fact has been overlooked: The Jewish vote remained heavily pro-Democrat.

Even more noticeable, while President Barack Obama’s approval rating has been in free fall, 57 percent  of Jewish voters still approve of his performance, and 69 percent voted Democratic.  

These numbers come from an exit poll of 800 Jewish voters conducted by the liberal advocacy group J Street immediately following the November elections.  A similar poll conducted by Republican Jewish Coalition showed slightly less enthusiasm for the Democrats — about 4 percentage points less — but that number is within the margin of error. 

Obama’s approval rating among Jewish voters, according to J Street, is 15 points higher than among the general population. 

On the one hand, this reflects a slide in the president’s popularity.  A year ago, a Pew Research Center survey found 65 percent of Jewish voters approved of the president’s performance. And in 2012, he won 80 percent of the Jewish vote.  Why the slide?   

In foreign policy, the president’s approach to Syria, ISIS and the turmoil in the Middle East is faltering, as if he’s been calling the shots while focused on the Golf Channel.   

Stylistically, he has come across as withdrawn, cerebral and defensive. Obama seems to throw a punch, then retreat to his corner. People who elected him to stand up to Mitch McConnell and John Boehner feel he’s not 110 percent in the fight. At a time when America needs to be having a serious and sustained set of conversations and actions about race, Obama seems more follower than leader.  In other words, the disappointment with Obama among Jews isn’t because he’s too radical, but too removed.

But the poll results still show more upside than downside at a time when the rest of America has all but written him off.

That just can’t be explained away as traditional Jewish-American liberalism (not that there’s anything wrong with that). President Jimmy Carter only got 45 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980, running against Ronald Reagan and independent John Anderson. History shows it takes more than a big “D” after your name to win Jewish support.

In Obama’s case, his continued popularity with Jewish voters rests on several accomplishments: Obamacare, which a 2012 American Jewish Committee survey found popular with Jews (if not all Jewish doctors); the economy, which you might remember was barely breathing before Obama and his team resuscitated it and rescued the automobile industry; and his approach to immigration reform and the environment. Poll after poll shows these rank high among Jewish voters.

What about Israel? Jews don’t blame Obama for what is widely seen as frosty relations between the administration and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Only 21 percent in a recent poll said Netanyahu’s actions have helped American-Israeli relations. 

And there is also this: Support for Obama is informed by a deep distrust of the forces arrayed against him. Mainstream, economically conservative but socially liberal Republican voices with thoughtful foreign policy solutions who could credibly counter Obama have taken a back seat in their party to more hysterical, radically right voices. In the back of their minds, Jewish voters have to be wondering, “If not him, then who?

Since those midterm exit polls were taken, Obama has taken unilateral steps that have proven even more popular with liberal voters. He’s been a bit feistier, as his appearance on “The Colbert Report” this week showed. And he will get well-deserved credit for ending, early on, the CIA interrogation tactics that this week’s Senate report found brutal and ineffective. Will he leave office as beloved by Jewish voters as Bill Clinton? Maybe not. But there’s still a lot he may yet do to become even more popular, like give a rousing endorsement to a Hillary Clinton-Elizabeth Warren ticket for 2016. And remind Americans of how far we’ve come since 2008.

Other voters already may have forgotten about these achievements, but Jews, who this week mark events from 167 B.C.E., have memories that can stretch back at least six years. 

Happy Chanukah.

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 @foodaism.

U.S. Jewish groups opposing Israel’s ‘Jewish state’ law worry about consequences

It’s not unusual to hear U.S. Jewish groups speaking out against laws that discriminate and framing their protests as protecting Jewish interests.

What’s unusual is that the target this time is the Israeli government and the proposed law emphasizes Jewish rights.

At issue is Israel’s nation-state bill, which if passed by the Knesset would enshrine Israel’s status as a Jewish state into law. Proponents say the bill would reinforce the Jewish character of Israel, but opponents charge that it would jeopardize the state’s democratic character and undermine Israel’s Arab minority.

Most major American Jewish groups weighing in on the debate are against it.

“It is troubling that some have sought to use the political process to promote an extreme agenda which could be viewed as an attempt to subsume Israel’s democratic character in favor of its Jewish one,” the Anti-Defamation League, the first group to speak out against the bill, said in a statement Nov. 24, a day after the Israeli Cabinet approved a version of the bill.

American Jewish groups against the measure outline two broad reasons for their opposition: the fear that it is ammunition for anti-Israel and anti-Jewish forces already feeding off the aftermath of Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and recent tensions in Jerusalem; and the fear that Israel is drifting from its democratic character, particularly in laws and practices that target minorities and women.

“The proposed Jewish state bill is ill-conceived and ill-timed,” Kenneth Bandler, the American Jewish Committee’s spokesman, told JTA in an email.

Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, said the bill provides cover for Israel’s enemies.

“It’s an unnecessary debate, it has spillover and provides fodder,” he said. “What comes out of this? Nothing.”

Other major groups opposing or expressing reservations about the proposed law include the Reform and Conservative movements, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for Jewish public policy groups.

The Zionist Organization of America is among the few U.S. Jewish groups that have taken a stand in favor of the nation-state bill.

“Non-Jewish citizens live and are welcome in Israel, but the Israeli state, its institutions, laws, flag, and anthem reflect the history and aspirations of the people who founded it with their labor, resources and blood,” ZOA President Morton Klein said in a statement.

The U.S. State Department has said that it expects “final legislation to continue Israel’s commitment to democratic principles.”

In Israel, the opposition to the bill is led by President Reuven Rivlin. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backs the law – although he has yet to settle on final language – and has pledged to bring it to the Knesset for a vote as early as next week.

As a “basic law,” the law would have constitutional heft. Its backers say giving Israel’s Jewishness a constitutional underpinning is increasingly necessary given attempts to delegitimize the state.

“The State of Israel is the national state of the Jewish people,” Netanyahu said Nov. 23. “It has equal individual rights for every citizen and we insist on this. But only the Jewish people have national rights: a flag, anthem, the right of every Jew to immigrate to the country and other national symbols. These are granted only to our people, in its one and only state.”

Such talk induces uneasiness in American Jews who over decades have been invested in an Israel in which Jewishness and democracy have successfully melded in equal parts, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told JTA.

“Let us strengthen Israel’s democratic foundation,” Jacobs said, noting in an interview a recent proliferation of attacks on minorities in Israel as well as statements from Israeli politicians elevating the Jewish character of the state over its democratic values. “If anything needs strengthening, that’s what needs strengthening,” he said, referring to democratic values.

U.S. Jewish groups generally confine their criticism of Israel’s government to issues of status that affect Israel’s Jewish citizens, like the treatment of the non-Orthodox religious streams and discrimination against women. They avoid criticism – at least in public – that would feed into attempts by Israel’s enemies to depict it as racist and exclusionary.

This bill is an exception, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said in an interview, because it has broader implications than a single decision involving the Palestinians that might draw controversy.

“This law speaks fundamentally to the democratic nature of Israel,” she said.

Schonfeld said Jewish-American sensitivities already were sharpened because of a series of legislative initiatives in Israel that would limit the rights of the non-Orthodox and practices that discriminate against women, like segregation on some buses. Particularly galling, she said, was a law that a ministerial committee maintained this week that criminalizes marriage by non-Orthodox rabbis.

“These laws that violate religious freedom are building blocks to anti-democratic legislation,” Schonfeld said.

The nation-state law also has drawn criticism from liberal Jewish groups that in the past have not hesitated to target what they see as discriminatory Israeli policies. Among the groups are Americans for Peace Now, the New Israel Fund and J Street.

Rachel Lerner, a J Street vice president, said American Jews have internalized democracy and equal rights for all as Jewish values in part because of the protections they have been afforded in the United States.

“We’ve had equal rights because this country is so accommodating, so there’s a lot of sensitivity toward that,” Lerner said.

Several major groups, including the Orthodox Union and the Jewish Federations of North America, have yet to weigh in. A source close to Jewish Federations said the umbrella body wants to see a final draft of the bill before pronouncing.

Netanyahu reportedly is seeking ways to include in the bill an emphasis on Israel’s democratic nature and its commitment to equal rights.

The JCPA in its statement called for postponing Knesset consideration of the bill and urged that the final draft make clear that Israel remains committed to equal rights.

“If they’re going to do this bill, it should be incredibly clear that there is no intention to diminish the rights of citizens who are not Jewish,” JCPA’s president, Rabbi Steve Gutow, told JTA.

Schonfeld said the law is the wrong solution to whatever anxieties are driving its proponents.

“This is a time of great anticipatory anxiety among Jews, and it calls for signal courage and not to give in to fears,” Schonfeld said. “This seems to be legislation motivated by fear and not by courage.”