Obama makes his Jewish outreach work harder
For some, it will be hard to dismiss the overheard critical comments about Netanyahu that were made by Obama and Sarkozy.
It's not nice to publicly use overheard conversation, but during tense elections, there is no chance that a dialogue between the French and the U.S. presidents will be easily dismissed. On Friday, Republican presidential hopeful, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, addressed the Obama-Sarkozy "hot mic" remarks at the opening of his New Hampshire campaign office.
"I thought that the conversation between Sarkozy and the president the other day was really disgraceful. I mean, we can pick who we want to describe as a liar: the head of the PLO, the head of Hamas, the head of Iran? I mean, to be unhappy with Benjamin Netanyahu, who's trying to survive in a dangerous neighborhood, struck me as just flagrantly inappropriate. And to have our president agree with Sarkozy, I thought was really disgusting, frankly," he said.
The two presidents’ personal opinions of the Israeli leader do not necessarily have anything to do with their attitude toward Israel, but the overheard conversation provided those suspicious of Obama with another "aha!" moment. And it will certainly make the job of Ira Forman, Obama campaign's director for Jewish outreach, as well as that of Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair, Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, more difficult. In the beginning of November, she reportedly told town hall meeting in South Florida: "As Jews, we want to look into someone's heart and know where they stand and that they stand with us. And I've looked into Barack Obama's heart and his kishkes. I know that he feels the issues that are important to us," she said at one town hall. "I've seen what's in his kishkes, and I know that this is a mensch that we have in the White House."
This Sunday, she has an event in Deerfield Beach, Florida, titled "A Conversation about Israel". This time, an elaborate fact sheet on the Obama's administration support of Israel will compete with the remarks the president made in Cannes.
Obama's Deputy national security adviser for strategic communications Ben Rhodes tried to provide some context for the presidents' dialogue: "Even as we’re dealing with a pressing economic crisis, the president was personally engaging foreign leaders to view his opinion that he opposed Palestinian membership in U.N. agencies. He personally did register his view, not just with President Sarkozy, but with other leaders, that unilateral Palestinian efforts at the U.N. are counterproductive. And so I think it speaks to his commitment to Israel’s security that he was doing that even in the context of a very pressing and urgent economic crisis. As it relates to Israel, he has a very close working relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu. They speak very regularly. I think they’ve probably spent more time one on one than any other leader that the president has engaged in. That’s rooted in the fact that the U.S. and Israel share a deep security relationship but also a values-based relationship. I think our actions speak very loudly, which is that this president has taken security cooperation with Israel to unprecedented levels. He has stood up time and again against delegitimization of Israel — whether it’s the Goldstone report, the flotilla or, of course, most recently, Palestine efforts to see unilateral measures at the U.N. to shortcut negotiations".
Time will show how it worked. In previous elections, Republicans predictions that the Democrat candidate is losing the support of the US Jews, did not come true. These elections, however, it might cause the Obama campaign some serious headache.
Will the US Embassy ever be moved to Jerusalem? Not anytime soon
Gingrich, who recently experienced a resurrection in polls and is doing well in the primary debates, also promised once more that one of his first executive orders, if he does indeed become the next president, will be to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
But it seems that to the current - or the next Republican President, should Barack Obama lose - moving the embassy to Jerusalem will be no easier than to close down the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay.
Since 1995, presidents (including George W. Bush) renewed the waiver to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv. House Republicans have recently been seeking to cancel the presidential waiver authority based on the Jerusalem Embassy Act, but an attempt to freeze the financial aid to the Palestinian Authority which ended up with releasing money to the Palestinians hints that moving the embassy won't happen any time soon.
The argument that Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, heard from the top administration officials about the aid was that it serves both U.S. and Israeli interests. At least in one respect, the State Department's argument that such a prominent symbolic step will compromise the U.S. position as an honest broker seems slightly outdated, since the Palestinians don't really see the U.S. as an honest broker, which they made quite clear by going to the UN.
The alternative route to change the U.S. position toward Jerusalem turns out to be equally indecisive: The Supreme Court hearings on the case challenging the policy dictating that the passports of U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem will solely mention "Jerusalem" and not "Israel" as place of birth, reveals significant doubts on behalf of the justices that Congress should meddle in the administration's foreign policy. The decision might be dragged well into the middle of presidential elections in 2012.
Biden and Pollard
This Sunday, Vice President Joe Biden will speak at the annual Yeshiva Beth Yehudah Dinner in Detroit. Ahead of his visit, local Jewish newspaper published on Friday an ad titled "Now it's the time to free Jonathan Pollard". The ad reads: "Dear Mr. Vice President Joseph R. Biden, we welcome you to our community. We hope, soon, to be able to also welcome Jonathan Pollard after more than 26 years in federal prison".
At his Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) reception for the Jewish leaders, Biden promised a group that approached him to discuss Pollard's issue to set up a meeting later. Over a month later, it has not happened yet.
Jewish students seek the "round picture" of Israel
"Our obligation is to guarantee the future of the Jewish people. This change cannot be brought only by us, It can be brought only if we have the army of young Jewish leaders devoted to this cause," proclaimed Jewish Agency chairman Nathan Sharansky at the Jewish Federations General Assembly in Denver last week. "The real changes will happen only if there is a core of the young American Jews who are proud of their identity and connections to Israel. They are the real agents of change. We need 100,000 young Jewish leaders scattered over the communities. It's not so difficult with young leadership programs".
The question over the relations of the young American Jews with Israel is not hidden under the table anymore, although there are still community activists who think there are certain "red lines" one shouldn't raise in a debate over Israel.
Ethan Felson, Vice President and General Counsel at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), said that for him, the highlight of the conference was the town hall meeting regarding the "big tent".
"Five years ago, there might have been an empty room there", he says. "But this time, there was an overflowing room. We are striving to find a way to achieve great things for the community in this highly charged partisan era. The community leaders are looking for ways to preserve what we have".
There could be more diversity at the GA - more former Israelis, many of whom are involved in the Jewish community issues and Israel advocacy; as well as new initiatives, such as a brand-new Jewish social network JSpace presented in Denver by an ambitious former Israeli and current New-Yorker Gil Gibli, who hopes it will become the ultimate alternative to the Facebook, Jewish dating sites, Jewish news sites, source of information on kosher food, places to pray and much more.
"I hope in couple of years from now, we'll have hundreds of thousands of users," he said. "Many times Jewish organizations are sitting two blocks away and do not cooperate or barely know what the others are doing."
Israeli diplomats who attended the GA stressed that talk of Israel's troubles and challenges won't go away, but that it's about time for the Jewish communities to help to change the old narrative presenting Israel to the world as a place of conflict. Not only is it not an attractive image, but people are actually tired of hearing about it.
Still, the talk about Israel at the GA mainly focused on donations issues, “delegitimization”, and losing that “loving feeling for Israel,” with a panel discussion dedicated to thinking about how to regain that “love.” The speakers were interesting, but the most sincere moment came when young woman from the audience said with a trembling voice that the Jewish establishment had lied to the young generation about Israel.
In a conversation with MASA at the "Cafe Connect" lounge (filled with Israeli snacks) made quite clear that despite their being fond of Israel, they seek the "round picture."
The students spent several months in Israel on different programs - enough to see the complexities of Israeli reality. Some of them witnessed the debate accompanying the disengagement. Others saw the questions the Second Lebanon War brought up. Some of them are thinking about moving to Israel more permanently, while others are just happy after their trip they have friends in Israel to ask about something bothersome on the news.
"We do stand with Israel, but we have this outside perspective," Nathan Shulkin (20) from the University of Delaware says. "There are so many ways to stay involved after the trip." He says that had he made aliyah, he'd be a “very happy, fulfilled person,” despite the fact that moving to Israel is “a big decision.”
Lawren Fialkow from Virginia Tech even made an Israeli boyfriend, and says that during her intensive Arabic semester at Givat Haviva, she often had to present the Israeli perspective to her Arab hosts - and an Arab perspective to her boyfriend's buddies.
"Some of the MASA students were not necessarily pro-Israel before joining the program," said Ari Jacobovitz, a Wayne State University student from Detroit. "When you are on a college campus, you tend to think about the conflict in a simple terms. Only when you get to Israel, you start understanding how complex is the history, the Israeli politics, to feel the frustrations. You cannot go around pretending Arabs are evil people - I met some of them in Israel and they are very nice people. You get there is no simple solution and no simple answer. I am telling other students that they just need to see it themselves. And if some are upset enough with Israel to stage protests at the campus - they should invest some more time to see things on the ground. Sometimes people don't even try to be informed."
Tor Tsuk, the Jewish Agency Israeli Emissary at the Columbia University campus, says the main point is to keep the balance between politics and other issues, such as cultural events and education. "Several times in a semester we have to deal with the anti-Israel events, but you can't change them - you can only present an alternative, to explain the situation is more complex. We are not looking to win the screaming contest - and I understand that the fruits of our work will be felt in years from now, when those students on campus will become the decision makers.".
Another blow to the Jewish Agency
Several years ago, the Jewish agency lost its monopoly on bringing Jews to Israel, when smaller, active groups, such as "Nefesh B'Nefesh" entered the field. This week, another blow was administered: the Jewish Federation’s Board voted for a plan to change the structure of the agency’s funding, canceling the automatic distribution of overseas funding, which used to be 75% for the Jewish Agency and 25% for the Joint Distribution Committee. As with the aliyah issues, the two will have to share the funds with other groups - and the Federation will be more involved in the decision-making process regarding how this money will be allocated.
A Jewish Agency spokesman declined to comment on the decision, but the institution's officials complained that it will make the overall effort less focused and ineffective, noting that the agency has been undergoing serious reforms. Its opponents, however, think it has become too bureaucratic and heavy, and should make way for more dynamic competitors.