Congress Tries to Punish Palestinians; U.S. Jews 'March' on Washington

The American Jewish community commemorates the 1987 March on Washington that brought 250,000 people to demonstrate in support of Soviet Jewry, while the Palestinians are enjoying international support.

Natasha Mozgovaya
Natasha Mozgovaya
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Natasha Mozgovaya
Natasha Mozgovaya

This week, the Palestinians scored another victory - this time in Washington. Several U.S.Congressmen who tried to introduce amendments to the National Defense Budget aimed at punishing the Palestinians for the unilateral step at the UN have thus far failed.

Some of the proposals included withdrawing funding to UN agencies, curbing financial aid to the Palestinian Authority should they go to the International Criminal Court, and even closing the PLO delegation in Washington, D.C., who are now allowed to fly the Palestinian flag on their building. The U.S. administration opposed these moves, although State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner noted that the Obama administration warned Palestinians their action is counterproductive and might have consequences in Congress.

Left-leaning pro-Israel lobby J Street launched an action against these steps, collecting 14,250 emails against these sanctions. President Jeremy Ben-Ami called the measures "defying logic," adding that "taking such a draconian step would widely undermine confidence in the leadership role of the United States in resolving this conflict,"

The failure of these amendments doesn't mean, of course, that Congress will stop trying to convey the message to the Palestinians that they can't circumvent negotiations - which is quite challenging considering that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a press conference in Washington last week that Israel prefers to delay negotiations until after its January 22 elections.

Maen Rashid Areikat, head of the PLO delegation to the United States (that remains open so far) told Haaretz he doesn't see any reason for this delay. "I believe now it's time to get engaged - why wait for the Israeli elections? Why waste another two or three months before activating the process? Whatever genuine meaningful form the process will take - there can't be actions that preempt the future of any political process. Israel can't have both settlements and peace."

Worldwide condemnation - including by the U.S.- of the Israeli announcement that it will further settlements construction following the UN vote on Palestine, seems to have satisfied the Palestinian diplomat.

"Our position vis-a-vis the settlements will not change - we'll continue to oppose it - but the important point is that this is not a Palestinian position, this is an international position, and what you've seen in the last few days - the widespread international condemnation of what Israel announced last week - the world is not in agreement with Israel on an illegal settlement activity. We will continue to use whatever means are available to us to talk to our friends, our allies in the UN, in order to pressure Israel to stop the settlement activity - because if they continue to do it, it means they are not serious about engaging with the Palestinians. They are the party who is undermining the political process".

As for the possibility of the future attempts by Congress to pass sanctions against the Palestinian Authority, Areikat seems genuinely puzzled about the purpose of such steps.

"Why they should even think about 'punishing' the Palestinians for going to the UN, which is a legitimate platform? Every nation has a right to go to the UN to pursue the interest of its people. We believe that cutting aid or severing the political ties with PLO is not going to serve the interest of the U.S. We are not getting any aid from the US in the last year - 2012 we didn't receive a penny from the US, all the money, 495 million, has been earmarked. We have not received one single dollar from the U.S., so basically, the U.S. is not giving us any single dollar right now. I think these sanctions will be counterproductive to the US before anybody else."

So what did the Palestinians achieve at the UN?

"The support of more than two thirds of the world" says Areikat. "Even the countries who abstained - at least 10 of them already recognized the Palestinians, but they succumbed to the pressure of the U.S. This is not the end of the road. What we are trying to do here - to keep the two-state solution alive, while the Israeli actions on the ground with settlements building are aimed at destroying the two state solution. People should understand the motives behind the Palestinians steps. It's not about abandoning the political process."

Areikat says the Obama administration does not "have a luxury of not getting engaged in the Middle East - not because of the Palestinians, more because of the special relations the US has with Israel. I believe it's important for the US to remain engaged."

Foreign Minister of Jordan Nasser Judeh this week in Washington echoed the Palestinian message. Judeh said he is not in a position to speak about the American government's future steps, but the Jordanian position is clear: "there should be active American involvement."

"We in Jordan are doing the heavy lifting. It is a national interest of all of us, it's a national interest of Jordan - Palestinian state, issues of Jerusalem and refugees resolved. We are not observers, we are stakeholders.   It's not my impression the US administration disengaged."

He told Haaretz in a meeting with reporters in Washington, DC that Israeli punitive steps against the Palestinians following their status upgrade at the UN are a "setback". "The Palestinian economy is suffering, I hear from them. These obstructive moves are setback and this action-reaction process should not be the case, it would poison the atmosphere leading to January.   What we are worried about - that in these 6 or 8 weeks that action-reaction that will hinder our collective ability to have negotiations resume after that," the foreign minister said.

 He also noted that Jordan has been in some contact with Hamas, but what it supports is a Palestinian unity. "We are encouraging Palestinian unity. It's important for it to take shape in order to effectively unify Palestinian position."


The U.S. Jewish community seems to be torn on this issue. Some are shocked with the Palestinians' "chutzpah" to demand status upgrade shortly after firing hundreds of rockets on Israel from Gaza. Others community members, however, thought this was a positive alternative to violence and wondered why in the world Israel didn't take advantage of the UN bid to strengthen moderates and garner international support. Despite support for Israel - the way forward on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict might become highly controversial issue at the community.

This stands in stark contrast to the event the American Jewish community commemorated on Thursday; 25 years to the December 6, 1987 March on Washington that brought an unbelievable 250.000 people to demonstrate on the National Mall, calling on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to let the Jews leave the country. The encounter with the Soviet Jews, not all of whom were heroic refuseniks, and many who held right-wing views, proved disappointing to some on the Israeli left - and also some American Jewish liberals. This week, about 80 members of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, met to reminisce about the event and what it meant to them.

Stuart Kurlander, today President of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, said he had traveled to the Soviet Union about six months before the 1987 rally, met with refuseniks and "carried with them the message that we would continue to keep the pressure on Washington in order to ensure their safe passage out of Russia to Israel and the U.S. where they can practice our religion freely."

Steve Rakitt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, adds: "In order to understand the rally's success we should go 20 years prior to the rally - all these years the Washington Jewish community was really committed to keeping the cause of the Soviet Jewry alive. They were in front of the Soviet Embassy for a vigil every day from 12:30 to 12:45, seven days a week. With all the work being done all over the country there was a momentum that built up to this enormous outpour on December 6 1987. Nobody knew quite what to expect, but we were fascinated to be a part of something so big - it was the largest gathering of any type on behalf of people in another country ever in Washington. For the Jewish community, it was a common cause to rally around."

Did you see any comparable response like it from the Jewish community since then?

"When Israel was under threat, that galvanized Jewish communities around the country. We did event celebrating Israel with 40 ,000 people at the National Mall. Jewish community is galvanized to meet need of our own. But the Soviet Jewry movement presented an opportunity to rally for Jews who weren't able to leave their country - and our ability as American Jews to urge our leaders to take action and communicate to Gorbachev to let our people go. The rally was the most significant showing of our own force of acting together, but obviously Jews and non-Jews participated in it."

"We came with a bus, there was an excitement. It was very cold, it was very difficult to hear the speakers - there were no jumbo screens and advanced loudspeakers like today, but it was exciting to be part of something that immense, when everyone around the country was involved.

"When the US Jews began to leave - a million when to Israel, half a million went to the US - the movement was equally involved in making it happen. The Federations and donors paid for the tickets, worked to integrate them into society, paid for their English lessons here, met families at the airport, took them to their new apartment where the refrigerator was staffed with food."

As for some bumps on the road with the actual Russian Jews, many of whom chose life of assimilation in the U.S., he says it was still worth it. "There were Jews who were oppressed in their country, not being able to practice their religion. People just like us. And we needed to step forward to help, they are our own people. Whatever they chose to do in leaving Russia - that's their own decision. We don't feel anything but pride and a sense of great accomplishment. It rises above all. We were extremely proud we were able to accomplish it."

As one might guess, for the "Russians", as they are called in Israel, the story is far from being complete. Today, ten Russian-American and Russian-Israeli community members (among them legislators and participants of the 1987 March to Washington), issued "an overdue" call for a bigger representation of the Russian speaking Jews - the biggest ethnic community in Israel - in various community institutions.

"From this point of view, some of the important goals and hopes of Russian-speaking Jews have not been fulfilled yet," they wrote. "While many of them have succeeded and prospered in the West, and we are proud of them, too many have not - including a large number of professionals with first-rate education and skills. ... This leads to an unjustifiable loss of some of the most valuable human capital that was brought to the West by the victory of the Soviet Jewry movement.

And according to Israel Democracy Institute, "only 28 percent of immigrants from the FSU affirm that their pre-immigration aspirations have been fulfilled in Israel to a considerable degree.... At least 20 percent of Russian-speaking Jews of working age in New York live in poverty... As a result, many have also lost the freedoms gained by this movement - for they cannot afford to travel to the graves of their parents and grandparents, visit Israel, or provide Jewish education to their children. This is a shame for all of us in the Jewish communal world."

The proposal: Sort of international communal roundtable to talk these issues over.

That's a nice idea. But in Israel, Russian Jews can hardly complain about their representation at the executive branch. As for the U.S. - after all the Jewish American community has done for the Russian one, they'd love to see some reciprocity, and much more active involvement of "Russians" in communal life - as well as in the philanthropy.

March on Washington, 25th anniversary, December 6, 2012Credit: Rabbi Joshua Hammerman