New Power Awakens Old Group
The National Association of Jewish Legislators came to Washington this week for a meeting intended to breathe new life into the moribund group.And not a moment too soon: with the political balance shifting from the federal to the state level, a strong Jewish presence in state capitals around the country will be more important than ever, said some of the 25 delegates.“There is a seismic shift taking place, “ said Sen. Seymour Lachman, a Democratic member of the New York State Senate from Brooklyn.
“The state legislatures will now be the major players in domestic legislation. Jewish organizations are just starting to pay attention to the change.”The public — and Jewish groups active in the domestic arena — are only slowly becoming aware of the
shift and its implications for public policy lobbying, he said. Block granting of major health, welfare and education programs vital to the Jewish community has vastly increased the power of state legislatures, he said.
Interest groups that remain fixated on Capitol Hill will find themselves left behind.State governments are also becoming key battlegrounds in church-state debates and efforts to expand religious rights. As an example, several speakers cited the growing emphasis on passing religious freedom laws at the state level, instead of a sweeping federal measure.“State legislators don’t have the visibility of national legislators,” Lachman said. “But more than ever before, we will be calling the shots, in terms of domestic issues. There’s goingto have to be a movement by lay Jewish leaders into the state capitals to impact upon areas of vital concern to the community.
Hopefully this conference will be a catalytic agent for that change.”In Albany, he said, Jewish legislators are talking about creating a more formal Jewish caucus.“In the past, the group was pretty inactive, and there wasn’t much interest in getting together,” said Dick Cohen, president of the organization and one of eight Jews in the Minnesota legislature. “I think that’s changing as our responsibilities increase, and this conference is the first step.”The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) organized the two-day conference in response to requests from Jewish communities around the nation.
“We heard a very clear concern about the shift in responsibilities,” said Reva Price, JCPA’s Washington representative and the organizer of the conference. “This is a natural group for us to work with as we try to expand our presence in state legislatures around the country.”
New Pollard Review Underway
President Bill Clinton’s latest review of the Jonathan Pollard matter — promised in the frenzied last hours of the Wye River summit in October, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to walk away from the talks if the convicted spy wasn’t released — could be completed by Jan. 11, the White House said this week.
For Pollard supporters, Clinton’s decision to review requests for commutation — which he has rejected twice in recent years — may be good news.
But there is also bad news: Clinton also said he would be consulting with some of the same forces in the government that have been most vociferous in opposing Pollard’s release. Thatincludes law enforcement and intelligence officials such as George Tenet, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who threatened to resign if Pollard’s release was part of the Wye agreement.
The apparent makeup of the presidential review incensed Pollard’s attorney, Larry Dub, who requested the right to review material submitted to the White House on the case — a request sources here say is unlikely to be heeded.In a letter to Clinton, Dub wrote that “I note with dismay that, in reviewing the Jonathan Pollard case, you have sought only the opinion of those authorities with vested interests, and whose public opposition to my client’s release has been rife with slander, false allegations and gross distortions of the facts.”
Specifically, he pointed to Tenet’s threat to resign, and charged that the CIA has “initiated a witch-hunt to rid the agency of Jews holding security clearances.”
Weiss Vs. Holocaust Council Redux
Rabbi Avi Weiss is continuing his war against the leadership of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum — motivated, he said, by his lifelong concern for Holocaust remembrance and his anger over the ongoing controversy regarding the Christian symbols at Auschwitz.
But at a session of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council on Tuesday, Weiss was chastised by a leader of the survivor community and several top Museum supporters for the intensely personal nature of his criticisms of Council chairman Miles Lerman, who heads the coalition negotiating with the Polish government over the future of the Auschwitz-Birkenau site.
In his statement, which was allowed only after an exchange between his lawyers and the Museum’s general counsel, Weiss discounted charges that his campaign against Lerman was motivated by the ouster of his brother-in-law, Walter Reich, as Museum director early this year.
“My father was raised in Oswiecim, later known as Auschwitz,” he said. “Everything I’ve done in my activist life was motivated by the Shoah — from going to Germany to protest Reagan’s visit to Bitburg, to following Waldheim around the world … to scaling theAuschwitz convent fence in order to force that issue on the public’s attention.”
“Your leadership has allowed the federal government and, specifically, the State Department to dictate many of the Museum’s policies.”As an example, he cited a State Department dictate that “no victims should speak at last week’s conference on stolen art.”
But Weiss is most angered by the Auschwitz negotiations, which were suspended over the summer after Polish extremists erected several hundred new crosses.If the Auschwitz agreement is signed, he said, “you will forever be held accountable for having been complicit in violating the memory of the dead. You have an obligation to order your leadership to cease and desist from dragging the Museum into the Auschwitz-Birkenau negotiations lest the Museum — and you as its council — be forever disgraced.”
Several Council members responded by criticizing Weiss’s personal attacks on Lerman.
In an emotional response, Benjamin Meed, president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, expressed bafflement. “Something is obsessing you that we cannot digest and cannot understand,” he told Weiss. Meed said the Auschwitz negotiations were being conducted by a coalition of groups, and included broad consultation with the survivor community.
Steven Grossman may be leaving as chair of the Democratic National Committee, but nobody in Washington expects the longtime pro-Israel activist to stay out of politics for long.
Last week Grossman, the former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), announced he would leave his post to spend more time with his family — including his ill father.The Democratic faithful say Grossman, who also served as chair of the Massachusetts Democrat Party and is perennially rumored to be thinking about a run for the statehouse, will be missed.
Under his stewardship the party pared down its $40 million debt. He also proved an able spokesman for a party that seemed to be sinking under the weight of the presidential sex scandals — but which fared unexpectedly well in the November congressional elections.
Grossman’s fund-raising prowess, Democratic sources say, was a big part of that success.“It was a thankless job — but he put everything he had into it and did a magnificent job,” said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. Grossman was a founding member of NJDC.
“He had the stature in the community to raise millions of dollars. He did a tremendous job of keeping the party competitive at a very difficult time.”
‘Superprimary’ Excludes Observant Jews
Voter turnout is low enough in general elections. For presidential primaries, the two political parties face even steeper odds in getting people to the polls.
To remedy that, a group of western states got together and scheduled a “superprimary” for March 11, 2000. The idea was to generate national interest that would convince voters to leave their easy chairs.
Only one problem: in an attempt to make voting easier, the governors decided to hold the vote on a Saturday. That didn’t sit well with officials of B’nai B’rith, who fired off a letter this week to Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and Montana Secretary of State Mike Cooney, co-chairmen of the Western Presidential Primary Task Force, demanding that the primary date be changed.
The Saturday vote “would prevent Sabbath-observant Jews in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming from exercising their constitutionally recognized rights to vote,” said B’nai B’rith’s new president, Richard Heideman.