Obama Corrects Controversial Jewish Heritage Month Proclamation

Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren says he doesn't regret anything in his "60 minutes" incident.

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1. On May 1, a day marked worldwide by the protests and parades of the labor movement, U.S. President Barack Obama announced the start of a different event - the seventh annual Jewish American Heritage Month. Obama implored all Americans to visit a website dedicated to the history of the Jewish American community (www.JewishHeritageMonth.gov ), "to learn more about the heritage and contributions of Jewish Americans and to observe this month with appropriate programs, activities, and ceremonies." The White House is expected to hold its own annual reception in its honor.

However, there was one embarrassing moment during the Presidential proclamation, there was a paragraph referring to specific figures in Jewish American history: "From Aaron Copland to Albert Einstein, Gertrude Stein to Justice Louis Brandeis, generations of Jewish Americans have brought to bear some of our country's greatest achievements and forever enriched our national life."

Gertrude Stein is an renowned writer and poet, but somewhat controversial figure - before War World II, she told the New York Times Magazine that Adolf Hitler should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, "because he is removing all the elements of contest and of struggle from Germany".

On May 2, the White House issued a revised Presidential Proclamation - this time without Stein - but also without Copland, Einstein and Brandeis, to be on the safe side.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who pushed this initiative during President George W. Bush's tenure, is currently the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee - and her statement was much, much more partisan. "It is this enduring commitment to social justice that makes the Democratic Party the political home of the American Jewish community", she wrote. "As Democrats and as Jews, we have much to be proud of in President Obama, who honors our community's historic contributions to America's cultural fabric as he prioritizes and embodies the values and policies we hold dear. From passing the Affordable Care Act and ardently protecting a woman's right to choose; to standing up for women's equality with the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act; to tirelessly advocating for student loan reform to invest in our children's future; to bolstering America's special bond with Israel through diplomatic, financial, and military support - President Obama's priorities are our priorities, too."

2. The election year, coupled with the high density of conferences by Jewish American organizations this month, has encouraged a sharp increase in the number of "unbreakable" and "unshakeable" phrases appearing in speeches by U.S. officials to describe relations between Israel and the United States. In the past there was some diversity, with "ironclad" and "sacrosanct." Probably a good time to check the thesaurus.

This week, on top of the speeches detailing the Obama administration's commitment to Israel's security, there were plenty of condolences extended to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the passing of his father, Prof. Benzion Netanyahu. Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney said in a statement that "not only was he the father of my friend Benjamin, the Prime Minister of Israel, and the father of Israel's hero of the Entebbe raid, Yonatan Netanyahu, he was also a distinguished historian and leader in his own right. This is a loss for all of Israel and for all who care about Israel."

There were questions raised by some in the Jewish community over whether Obama felt the same. Tuesday night, at the Israeli Embassy's 64th Independence Day event, Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to Obama, extended her condolences on behalf of the administration. Some Conservative Jewish Internet surfers concluded "it's not good enough," and said the delay was "typical" of the Obama administration and "insulting." Yesterday morning the White House issued a details of Obama's call to Netanyahu from Air Force One, on his way back from his unannounced visit to Afghanistan - "to express his personal condolences on the death of his father, Benzion Netanyahu. In the call the President noted Benzion Netanyahu's remarkable legacy of service to the Jewish people and deep friendship with the United States."

Valerie Jarret, senior advisor to president Obama, speaking at the Israel Independence Day event in Washington, May 1, 2012.Credit: Natasha Mozgovaya

3. This year at the Independence Day event, there were Jewish community leaders and some officials, but no congressmen, since the event fell on the district work period in Congress. At least Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren faced a much friendlier crowd than at George Washington University this week, when dozens of students silently stood up and walked out when he began to talk. This protest was nowhere near the one he faced in February 2010 at the University of California, Irvine, when hecklers disrupted his speech 10 times, shouting anti-Israel slogans. Ten out of the 11 Muslim students arrested in the incident, the so-called "Irvine 11," were found guilty on two counts of misdemeanors and sentenced to three years probation. Since then, most protesters at universities opt for walkouts.

I asked the ambassador to comment on these protests, and Oren said he feels it's a sort of missed opportunity. "It's a pity when they walk out, because I am coming for this interaction, with those who disagree, with Arab students," he said. "I am coming to talk to them, and I will continue to go to the most difficult campuses. I won't let these guys to prevent the Israeli ambassador from speaking on American campuses."

The reactions and protests are not pleasant, he said, "but I am head of the diplomatic mission. It's like reserve duty in the army: As a soldier you get shot at, and as an ambassador you sometimes get hecklers. It's part of the mission."

What about the criticism Oren faced following his attempt to influence correspondent Bob Simon's report on the CBS show "60 minutes" about Palestinian Christians in Israel? Some called it an attempt to silence the American media.

"I received credible information that CBS' 60 Minutes is working on a report on Christians and Israel, and that it's so biased it was sent several times for revision.

Our relationship with the Christian community is very dear to me. I don’t see it as merely a hasbara issue, and as ambassador, I will not ignore attempts to intentionally misrepresent Israeli policies and aim to hurt our relations with highly valued communities. Ever since I was interfaith advisor in Rabin's government, I have been well familiar with the issue and the sensitivities. The embassy contacted CBS and outlined our concerns, because they were doing what we understood was biased reporting.

Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren greets Dr. Ziad Assali, President of the American TaskForce on Palestine, at the Israeli Independence Day receptionCredit: Natasha Mozgovaya

We offered a list of suggestions that we felt would help to balance the report - people to interview, regional context, and camouflaging Christians interviewed because they would otherwise be afraid to go on camera. From my experience in government, I have been approached by many Christians who have been afraid to go on camera to talk about real threats. It was a constructive exchange with CBS, and I was invited to be interviewed. The interview lasted for an hour and a half, and it was an extremely hostile interview that confirmed our concerns. I felt it did not meet 60 Minutes's own journalistic standards, especially since they had not approached a single representative of the Israeli government until we contacted them. I don't regret anything in the way we dealt with it."

According to a senior Embassy source, "The segment that was aired contained some creative editing – applying different answers to different and unrelated questions."

4. When speaking about the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, water is mentioned less often than it probably deserves. It's more prosaic than Jerusalem, but even on this issue the Israelis and Palestinians have difficulty agreeing on the reality on the ground. A couple of days ago Dr. Shaddad Attili, the Palestinian Water Authority Minister, made a presentation on this issue at the World Bank in Washington. The situation today, he said, is no better than it was in 1995. Projects are stalled, and while the minimum requirement of water per capita stands at 100 liters, Palestinians get "80 liters per day per capita, versus the 280 liters of Israelis, and in many Palestinian communities people get less than 15 liters per capita per day."

How does Attili explain the Israeli government's different statistics on water supplied to the Palestinian territories, I asked him. "How do Israelis present different numbers? They count how they prescribe for Palestinians and subtract it from all the amount of water available. But if you compare the water available to the nearby settlement - sometimes it takes 90 percent and the Palestinian village gets 10 percent," he said.

"We didn't invent this, it's by international law. The message we'd like to share: We want to cooperate, we want to live in peace, we'd like to build a viable Palestinian state next to Israel, we'd like to have our water share," Attili added. "The fact that water is not paid proper attention as one of the core issues that should be taken care of, it's a mistake. Israel and Palestine can create a successful case, a win-win case. Water is one of the core issues of conflict between us. We are interested in having a viable state, and for this we need water. I am the one who is coming to Israel each day, I have no problem sitting with Israelis." Unless, he corrects himself, Israelis are settlers.

"Settlements in the West Bank are illegal," he said. "And they are attacking resources, confiscating the springs. Water from our territory is taken to feed settlements. We don't have the Jordan River. We do have a problem with settlers and with the Israeli government that won't let the spirit of the Jordan agreement be reflected on the ground."

Attili admitted the Palestinians also have their own problems, "not only with Israelis, but how to better manage resources that we have. There are claims of corruption, but not all of us are corrupt, and the government is promoting reforms."

He asked the World Bank to intervene on this issue. "You are not intervening on a humanitarian basis, it has to do with the political level, creating a two-state solution," he said. Attili won the sympathy of the World Bank officials, but also their claim that the key to this problem is not in their hands.



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