With Congress starting a serious debate over the Iraq war and President George W. Bush’s plan for a troop “surge,” the debate may be heating up in the Jewish community as well.
This week the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) — the only major Jewish group to take a position on the conflict — launched a major effort to foster education and discussion in synagogues across the country.
At the same time, URJ leaders say they will submit a new Iraq resolution to the group’s board of trustees executive committee at its March 12 meeting.
The resolution will include a call for a “timetable” for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, something the URJ avoided in its groundbreaking November 2005 resolution critical of the war.
The URJ has launched a new Web site providing resources for congregations and local Jewish groups to use in stimulating debate on the war and is referring to the Bush troop surge as “escalation,” a term favored by war critics and eschewed by the Bush administration.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is also asking congregations to provide local feedback about the best course of action for the Reform movement on the Iraq question.
“We have received communications from rabbis and local congregations around the country asking why we weren’t speaking out,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, the RAC director. “Equally important, we were getting questions from offices on Capitol Hill and the media, asking for the Reform perspective, since we spoke out a year and a half ago. There was a sense that responsible leadership of the Union had to take that position and apply it to changing circumstances.”
In November, 2005, he said, the URJ resisted pressure to demand a specific timetable for pulling out U.S. troops, but “the feeling now is that there won’t be an exit strategy without a firm timetable.”
Saperstein declined to criticize other Jewish groups that have remained silent on the war, but said “it’s hard to imagine any issue that has more moral implications, or implications for America and for Israel, than the war in Iraq.”
A Reform activist who has criticized the movement for not following up on the 2005 resolution expressed satisfaction at the URJ move — and a few reservations.
“I’m very pleased that the Reform movement is taking the lead among Jewish organizations on the Iraq question,” said Gerald Coles, chair of the social action committee at Congregation Tikkun v’Or in Ithaca. “I think it will have a big impact in moving members of Congress to support a phased withdrawal with a specific timetable.”
But Coles said he wished the movement had endorsed one of the end-the-war resolutions now before Congress.
Hit By A Ford
The 2008 presidential election campaigns may be in their earliest stages, but that hasn’t stopped partisans on both sides from aggressive efforts to win Jewish votes.
Recently the Republican Jewish Coalition, which has skewered the entire Democratic Party for comments critical of Israel by a few, criticized Gen. Wesley Clark, the darkest of horses in the run for the Democratic nomination, for comments about the relationship between Israel, New York money interests and a possible military strike against Iran.
This week the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) slammed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for the venue for his Tuesday announcement officially throwing his hat into the ring: the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.
The problem? Ford was a world-class bigot, xenophobe and anti-Semite. Last year, the Democratic group blasted former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) for a book linking illegal immigration to crime and terrorism — and praising the “Americanization” efforts of Ford.
Now it’s Romney’s turn to get run over by a Ford.
In a statement, NJDC director Ira Forman said the group is “deeply troubled by Governor Romney’s choice of locations to announce his Presidential campaign” and criticized his “embrace” of the long-dead auto magnate and “Ford’s Legacy.”
The NJDC also took the opportunity to blast Romney for a 2003 veto on fiscal grounds of portions of a Massachusetts budget that the group said “caused an increase in the cost and reduced the availability of kosher meals for Jewish residents on Medicaid.”
The RJC — which has been working hard to convince Jewish voters that former President Jimmy Carter still speaks for the Democrats, even though his Mideast views have been repudiated by every major party figure and a lot of minor ones — responded to the Ford controversy by blasting NJDC for not criticizing former President Bill Clinton, who praised Ford in a 1999 speech on micro-enterprise development.
RJC Director Matt Brooks said he was “saddened and disappointed” about the NJDC failure to criticize Clinton, while slamming Romney for merely choosing the Ford museum for his candidacy announcement.
Romney has already lined up some big-name — and big-money — Jewish support, including Ambassador Mel Sembler, who will serve as a national finance co-chair for the campaign.
Last month Sembler, a longtime RJC leader, accompanied Romney on the ritual trip to Israel — a role the Jewish politico also played in 1999 with then-Gov. George W. Bush. Also on the Romney team: former White House speechwriter and Jewish liaison Noam Neusner.
NJDC, meanwhile, wasn’t invited to last week’s meeting between top Jewish leaders and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
That’s not unusual — it’s a partisan, not a policy group, after all.
But the RJC, its Republican counterpart, was.
So is the State Department now a full participant in the Jewish partisan wars?
Call For Envoy
Resolutions dealing with the Middle East — and seeking to reinforce the pro-Israel credentials of lawmakers — continue to sprout on Capitol Hill like mushrooms after a rainstorm.
A small group of House members want the Bush administration to do something it has persistently rejected: appoint a special Mideast envoy to deal with Israel and the Palestinians.
The resolution by Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) argues that “the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories has substantially deteriorated since 2000,” and that “it is directly in the national interest of the United States to reengage both sides of this dispute in an urgent manner.”
Washington must “take a lead” in facilitating new negotiations, Davis said — and the only way to do that is through the appointment of a special peace envoy.
Davis is Jewish, as are several cosponsors: Rep. Allison Schwartz (D-Pa.), Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.), a freshman member. Also on the resolution: Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.).
But the legislation doesn’t specify exactly what a special envoy should do — a problem, given the fact that the Palestinian Authority remains under the control of a group that rejects Israel’s right to exist. That, plus opposition from the Bush administration, will undoubtedly limit chances of passage.
This week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice headed to the region for yet another effort to convince Arab allies that Washington means business on the question of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. But Rice left with no new peace proposals — and no intention of appointing a special U.S. negotiator.
Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-Western N.Y.) has introduced a resolution calling on the State Department to take “certain steps toward recognition by the United States of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”
Those certain steps include barring the operation of a U.S. consulate in Jerusalem — to put pressure on the administration to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv, as mandated by a 1995 law — and identifying Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in official U.S. government documents.
If all that sounds familiar, it should; similar legislation was introduced in the last Congress, but failed to move in the face of administration opposition.
Hate Crimes Redux
A number of Jewish groups are getting set for yet another major push to pass long-delayed legislation expanding current hate crimes laws.
The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007, like its unsuccessful predecessors, would make it easier for federal authorities to assist local law enforcement agencies in investigating and prosecuting certain hate crimes. It would also expand coverage of existing hate crimes statutes to cover crimes based on disability, gender, gender identity and sexual orientation.
That last category has prompted fierce opposition from Christian right groups, which argue that it amounts to giving “special rights” to homosexuals. The bill has also generated opposition from some conservatives who see it as another expansion of federal prerogatives.
Despite that opposition, a rising tide of hate violence has convinced a bipartisan majority that new legislation is needed; similar bills have been passed by the Senate twice and the House three times since 2000.
But each time, the measure was killed in House-Senate conference committees by Republican leaders.
Jewish groups, led by the Anti-Defamation League, think things will be different this time around.
“This bill has attracted bipartisan majority support on a number of occasions in the past,” said Michael Lieberman, ADL’s Washington counsel. “The problem is that it has been blocked by the Republican leadership in the House. That won’t be a problem in the 110th Congress. We hope and expect it will pass in this session.”