Delegates to this week’s Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) plenum in Washington defied the Israeli government when they refused to adopt a last-minute resolution calling for tougher action against Iran and for its leaders to be indicted for inciting genocide.
At an annual convention once dominated by fierce behind-the-scenes politicking over controversial resolutions, the Iran resolution, proposed by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, provided the only real drama.
The resolution noted the “failure of international diplomatic efforts” to stop Iran from building atomic weapons and Iran’s use of “proxies” like Hezbollah and Hamas. If passed, it would have put JCPA on record supporting efforts to have Iranian leaders indicted for “inciting genocide in violation of international law.”
It also called for “stop Iran” demonstrations
and a “campaign to encourage divestment from companies that do business in Iran by state pension funds and private entities.”
“We have submitted this resolution because we felt the urgency at hand, and we felt time is running out,” said Nancy Kaufman, the Boston CRC director.
But representatives of several national agencies said they had not had a chance to study the resolution—and others suggested that the call for the indictment of Iranian leaders could play into their hands by making Israel and the Jews the focus of the confrontation with Tehran.
But Israeli diplomats from the embassy in Washington, in a rare show of active involvement in the internal deliberations of an American Jewish group, actively worked the floor, lobbying delegates in favor of the resolution and, in some cases, calling top organization leaders.
The Israelis argued that failing to act, once the proposal was introduced, would send the wrong message about Jewish resolve on the issue.
But David Luchins, an official of the Orthodox Union and longtime JCPA leader, argued that the language of the resolution was unclear — and that it “might actually be weaker than existing JCPA policy.”
Concerns of delegates were allayed when Martin Raffel, the JCPA associate director, promised to disseminate a strong statement on Iran based on existing JCPA policy.
An effort by the American Jewish Committee and the OU to draft an alternative, more streamlined statement failed.
In the end, delegates voted to refer the measure to the JCPA executive committee for further consideration.
Support For Sudan Divestment
Also at the JCPA plenum, opposition to a controversial policy resolution supporting the use of selective divestment against the genocidal government of Sudan fizzled in the face of overwhelming concern about the people of Darfur.
Divestment “could be one of the most effective tools we have for ending that genocide,” Sammie Moshenberg, Washington director of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) told delegates.
Other supporters of the resolution conceded that the divestment tactic might not work — but said that the urgency of the Darfur situation and the failure of diplomacy to stop the slaughter left few other options.
A representative of the Jewish Labor Committee disagreed, insisting that “divestment is going to come back and bite us; our enemies will not be so nuanced as to notice the moral differences between Israel and the genocidal regime in Sudan.”
But after a series of emotional presentations on the ongoing crisis in Darfur, the resolution passed by a wide margin.
Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service, praised JCPA for “the deliberative process it undertook, and for recognizing that we must use whatever means we have available to make ‘never again’ a reality.”
Another controversy was averted when delegates reached a compromise on resolutions expressing support for Israelis displaced both by last summer’s rocket attacks in the North and by the 2005 Gaza withdrawal.
The Orthodox Union introduced a single resolution on the subject, but it ran into stiff resistance from other national groups, which wanted the two groups of refugees separated. Supporters said the critics did not want to equate those forced to leave their homes because of Hezbollah rockets to Gaza settlers forced out by Israel’s unilateral withdrawal.
A compromise was reached when the OU agreed to separate resolutions — which quickly passed.
Nathan Diament, the OU’s Washington representative, said he was happy that the group is now on record supporting the Gaza refugees.
“The message is that the American Jewish community has a critical role to play in delivering relief to the Israelis who were evacuated from Gaza, who remain in desperate need,” he said. “This resolution makes that clear.”
Delegates also passed resolutions restating JCPA’s longstanding commitment to civil rights, calling for genuine immigration reform, supporting efforts to win energy independence and calling for “reasonable and effective legislation that will appropriately limit access to handguns.”
The group also passed a resolution urging Congress to retain funding for critical health and human service needs, opposing state and federal tax measures and budget procedures that would “restrict or impede funding for vital social services” and opposing “taxpayer bill of rights” initiatives that “threaten to paralyze state governments ability to provide essential services.”
That does not break new policy ground for JCPA—but adds a degree of specificity to prior JCPA positions.
Iraq Debate Fizzles
Many JCPA delegates came to town eager to hear more about mounting opposition to the Iraq war. Just before the plenum opening, the Gallup organization announced a compendium of polling data that showed American Jews at the forefront of opposition to administration policy in Iraq.
According to the Gallup numbers, 48 percent of Protestants and 53 percent of Catholics surveyed over a two-year period said the Iraq war was a mistake—compared to 77 percent of Jews, second only to African American Protestants in opposition to the conflict.
But the Iraq war was more like background noise than a focal point for intense debate at JCPA.
No group sought a resolution condemning administration policy. A scheduled “open forum” on the war, scheduled for after the policy debates, started so late that only a handful of delegates and bleary-eyed students bothered to attend.
A session featuring Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, a leading Republican war critic, and a top administration Iraq policymaker, fizzled when the policymaker was replaced by a lesser State Department official and a majority of delegates departed for dinner.
Hagel, for his part, was supposed to focus on Iraq—but spent most of his time warning about Iran and arguing that all the crises in the region are linked.
“The United States must approach the Middle East with a clear understanding of the complexities of the region,” he said. “Our strategic policies must be regional in scope, integrating Iran, Iraq, Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, violent Islamic extremism, access to energy supplies and political reform into a comprehensive policy equation.”
JCPA delegates also heard from Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, several influential Christian Zionist leaders, and the Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, who talked about Jewish-Protestant relations in the wake of the big fight over divestment. The group also gave an award to Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), a former national UJA chairman.
Israel, PA Aid
Israel’s big slice of U.S. aid, which once provided pro-Israel lobbyists with an annual challenge in Congress, has become so routine that the debate over the money is all but inaudible.
Support for helping Israel remains strong—but the aid question could get a more thorough public airing in the days and weeks to come as Israel tries to negotiate a new aid agreement with Washington following the conclusion of a ten-year agreement that reduced the overall aid level somewhat and turned millions in economic aid into military assistance.
This week a high-level Israeli delegation was in Washington. One of its goals, Israeli sources say, is to find a formula for a modest increase in military aid over the next ten years to help Israel cope with new challenges like a nuclear Iran and to help defray some of the costs of last summer’s wars against Hezbollah and Hamas.
Israeli officials believe that it is important to negotiate a new agreement that includes an increase before President Bush leaves office in 2009.
But there could be a huge obstacle: the mounting federal budget crisis, and efforts by the Democrats who now control both Houses of Congress to cut the massive deficit without slashing vital domestic programs. Lawmakers will be skeptical about any new spending as they deal with the staggering costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the mounting impact of recent tax cuts and the looming entitlements crisis.
Aid to the Palestinian Authority is also generating some congressional ripples.
Recently Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Westchester), chair of the Foreign Operations Appropriations subcommittee, froze the Bush administration’s request for $86 million to beef up Palestinian security forces under the control of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas.
The money is for uniforms, equipment and training, but Lowey, reflecting the views of major pro-Israel groups, argues that the extra money could end up bolstering Hamas terrorists.
Lowey’s hold predated the February 8 Mecca agreement that many officials here see as a Fatah cave-in to Hamas. “Since that time, the Mecca summit has raised additional concerns,” she said in a statement. “It’s imperative that we have a fuller understanding of exactly what the funding is for and what the situation is on the ground.”
The Bush administration, which proposed the additional aid, wants the money released—but has not been aggressive in fighting the congressional hold, Capitol Hill sources say.
Nor have pro-peace process groups.
“The Mecca agreement has complicated things for all of us,” said an official with one dovish group that has supported more U.S. aid to help Abbas. “It’s not even clear if additional U.S. security aid would be legal under current law, given the Mecca agreement. The situation is very complicated.”
Ind. Pol Withdraws Over Comments
Jewish Republicans, who ran an aggressive campaign during last year’s midterm congressional elections arguing that the Democratic Party is anti-Israel because of critical comments by a few members, had to deal with some of its own dirty laundry last week.
A leading Republican contender for mayor of Indianapolis was forced to withdraw after he suggested Israel would go to war against Iran and Syria—and that it’s somehow the fault of wealthy Jewish Democrats.
Bob Parker, in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, said “I personally see Israel going into Iran and Syria in the next couple of months… It’s mainly because of the Jewish faction inside the Democratic Party. Most Jewish people are Democrats, and they bring that wealth. My opinion is, if Israel would go into Iran, Democrats will follow that cause. I really do believe that.”
That drew an energetic response from the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), which called on the Marion County Republican Party to remove Parker from its slate.
“The comments by Mr. Parker are unbecoming of someone seeking to lead a major U.S. city,” said NJDC Executive Director Ira Forman. “Traditionally, comments that Jews control the country or major institutions have been used to perpetuate hurtful stereotypes. Mr. Parker should know better. And the Indiana GOP needs to do a better job vetting their candidates.”
This week the local Republican Party took that advice and asked Parker not to run. That leaves the party without a major candidate in the race to unseat Democratic mayor Bart Peterson.
The Republican Jewish Coalition called Parker’s comments “out of line” and expressed appreciation for “the party’s sensitivity to the effect this kind of language has on public discourse and on the Jewish community.”
But Matthew Brooks, the group’s director, also used the statement to take more swipes at the Democrats.
“Unfortunately, the National Jewish Democratic Council, which was quick to criticize Parker’s comments when they became public, still has not shown the same concern about the remarks which Democratic presidential hopeful Wesley Clark made almost two months ago, which were based on the same anti-Jewish stereotype,” he said.