Harman Declines Jewish Journal Debate Invite

In my column of January 12, I offered to moderate a debate spopnsored by The Jewish Journal on Middle East issues between Rep. Jane Harman and Marcy Winograd, who is challenging Harman for the 36th Congressional seat.  Winograd, the challenger, quickly accepted. It’s taken a while to get a response from Harman, but yesterday her chief of staff e-mailed me a firm but polite no.

Hi Rob—thank you for your message and your invitation.  However, Congresswoman Harman declines the kind offer and believes her views on Israel are very clear.  John H.

Too bad, we even had a venue: Rabbi Dan Shevitz of Temple Mishkon Tephilo had offered his 800-seat sanctuary gratis.

I understand why Harman, who beat Winograd in the last race has little to gain from exposing herself to her opponent.  But my reason for holding the debate had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the state of The State of Israel and the American Left. Both Harman and Winograd are Democrats.  Harman represents a broad concensus view for a two state solution to the Israeli Palestinian issue, and strong American political and financial support for Israel. Winograd made clear in a speech that she supports a one-state solution and a deep reconsideration of America’s stand vis a vis Israel.  This divide is a crucial one among Democrats on the Left, Far Left and Center, and the more open and intelligent debate on it, the better.  That’s my point of view.  Clearly, it’s not Harman’s.

Too bad.

Here’s what I wrote in my column:

One Shabbat morning several years ago, Dan Shevitz, one of my two favorite Venice rabbis, was walking down Abbot Kinney Boulevard toward his synagogue, Mishkon Tephilo. He came to a narrow stretch of sidewalk in front of Abbot’s Habit, and stopped, not wanting to walk over a large dog standing guard beside its owner.

“Pardon me,” he said. “I just want to get by. Do you mind moving your dog?”

The owner looked up at him in a post-pot, pre-caffeine haze. “Hey, it’s Venice man,” he said. “Step around it.”

If the Chicago Rule, per David Mamet, is, “They send one of your guys to the hospital, you send one of theirs to the morgue,” the Venice Rule is, “Step around it.”

Last week, the race for California’s 36th Congressional District seat, which includes that stretch of crippled nirvana called Venice, tested the Venice Rule. Incumbent Congresswoman Jane Harman decided to go after challenger Marcy Winograd — really go after her. The primary isn’t until June, but what brought the candidates swinging out of their corners was Israel.

On Harman’s behalf, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) recently sent a letter attacking Winograd’s stand on Israel to Jewish supporters on a list created by the Harman campaign. Waxman quoted liberally from a speech Winograd delivered in February 2008 at the Friends of Sabeel Conference at All Saints Church in Pasadena. In that speech, Winograd said she not only opposes a two-state solution, she supports the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

“Not only do I think a two-state solution is unrealistic,” Winograd said, “but also fundamentally wrong, because it only reinforces heightened nationalism.  You cannot establish a democracy in a state founded on the institutionalized superiority or exclusivity of one of [sic] religion, ethnicity or culture.  I do not support the notion of an Islamic state or a Christian state any more than I support a Jewish state” (for the full text, visit this column at jewishjournal.com).

Winograd went on to accuse Israel of “crimes against humanity,” “institutional racism” and “extermination.”

Waxman’s response was unequivocal. “Ms. Winograd’s views on Israel I find repugnant in the extreme,” he wrote. “Ms. Winograd is far, far outside the bipartisan mainstream of views that has long insisted that U.S. policy be based upon rock-solid support for our only democratic ally in the Middle East.

“In Marcy Winograd’s foreign policy, Israel would cease to exist. In Marcy Winograd’s vision, Jews would be at the mercy of those who do not respect democracy or human rights.”

Waxman’s fundraising letter exploded on the Internet like those Hamas rockets did in Ashkelon last week.

Winograd’s supporters, among them Huffington Post columnist Linda Milazzo, accused Waxman of picking an issue of little concern to the 36th’s constituents to gloss over Harman’s positions on issues that matter more: health care, civil liberties, jobs.

“It’s high time that [Sen. Joseph] Lieberman, Waxman and Harman, who’ve been elected to serve this nation, direct their passions toward the best interests of America, and not the interests of Israel,” Milazzo wrote — forgetting Waxman was often the lone voice against Bush-era secrecy, and the architect of landmark legislation on issues ranging from clean water to open government.

Judging by Milazzo’s post and the comments of other bloggers, this controversy will be a big issue in a campaign taking place more than 7,500 miles from Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. The district is solidly Democratic — it’s Venice, man — so it’s a given that whoever wins the primary will likely go to Congress. What isn’t a given is how Democrats will finally face their differences over Israel.

This is not a question of “He said/She said/She said.” Waxman’s, Harman’s and Winograd’s positions on Israel each could not be clearer. Waxman and Harman represent the Jewish, Israeli, American and Palestinian consensus for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That’s right: An April 2009 poll commissioned by the Israeli-Palestinian peace group OneVoice found that 74 percent of Palestinians and 78 percent of Israelis were willing to accept a two-state solution.

Meanwhile, many on the left-of-left see America’s support for Israel, and the struggle for a negotiated solution, as part of some colonialist policy that props up a “racist” Israel at the behest of a juggernaut lobby. The danger of such a worldview — beyond the threat it poses to Israel — is that it blinds its believers to the real causes of Islamic extremism and the real reasons much of the Muslim world is blanketed in political oppression and economic backwardness. That blindness endangers all Americans, even Venetians.

Progressives who like Winograd’s stands on many other issues — and there are many to like — will be forced to choose how far they’ll follow her into Blame-Israel-First Land.

“On most issues, we agree with Marcy, who has been a stalwart in the Westside Progessive Democratic Party,” Venice residents Tom Laichas and Donna Malamud e-mailed me after finding Winograd’s Sabeel speech. “And we have since the Iraq War found Jane Harman on what, for us, is the wrong side of a lot of issues. But over the past several years, we’ve seen the idea of a binational unitary state gain even more ground on the left. We can’t vote for someone who will give the idea greater legitimacy.”

I invite Winograd and Harman to discuss this issue in a public forum hosted by The Jewish Journal at a mutually convenient date. Israel, it seems, is a fight the left can no longer just step around.