Smithsonian Gets Hit With A Right Hook
The Smithsonian institution has long been a favorite target of conservatives on Capitol Hill. Now, the revered museum and educational institution has run afoul of hawkish pro-Israel groups, as well. At issue was a lecture series sponsored by the Smithsonian Associates, an educational group affiliated with the institution and the New Israel Fund (NIF). The topic: “Israel at 50: Yesterday’s Dreams, Today’s realities.”
But on Tuesday, the institution said it would reformulate the series after complaints from Americans for a Safe Israel (AFSI) and several Republican lawmakers, who insisted it was skewed to reflect an anti-Israel bias.
“The Smithsonian said it was developing a “fair and apporpriate” program under its own banner, without sponsorship of NIF.
“I was as outraged as anybody about their revisionist approach to World War
II,” said Rep. Mike Forbes (R-L.I.) in an interview, referring to the controversy over the museum’s abortive exhibit on the Enola Gay, which critics said downplayed Japan’s role in starting World War II. “At the time, I wanted to chalk it up to a project that got out of control. But when you see the celebration of the Jewish state’s anniversary being turned into a politically correct event for the left, then it takes away from what I think should be a real celebration.”
Forbes was especially incensed by the participation of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. In a statement, Forbes said Friedman “has heaped unjust and insulting criticism on Israeli leaders for the past 20 years.”
Pro-Israel leaders generally downplayed the controversy, but agreed that a debate about modern Israel shouldn’t be cast as an anniversary celebration.
“The issue isn’t who was invited, it’s the program design itself,” said the Washington representative of a major Jewish group. “If you’re doing an event commemorating the anniversary, you should look at the positive achievements. My sense is that the program, as designed, focused too much on the challenges that remain, the inadequacies.”
Norman Rosenberg, executive director of the New Israel Fund, insisted that the program, set for late April, was intended to stimulate discussion, not bash Israel.
“The effort isn’t to take a position on whether Israel is right or wrong, but to say that Israelis themselves are looking at these issues every day — at the relationship between the religious and the secular, at the role of the Arabs, at the peace process,” he said.
The criticisms, he said, are the result of “a campaign by a few right-wing extremists. It’s the same crowd who have been raising issues about NIF for years. It’s AFSI and a handful of others who have little to do with their time but vilify anybody who speaks in a voice that’s different from theirs. And this fits in well with the secular right’s attacks on the Smithsonian.”
Early this week, NIF officials added Likud representatives to the program, including former ambassador to the United States Zalman Shoval, but it wasn’t enough; on Tuesday, the Smithsonian pulled the plug, saying they didn’t have the resources to deal with a big political controversy. The NIF will go ahead with the seminar on its own — complete with the controversial Friedman.
Specter: Possible Progress With Syria
With the Israeli-Palestinian impasse looking more intractable than ever, the administration may use the upcoming Washington summit with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to look for ways to restart the frozen talks with Syria.
This week, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) paid calls on leaders in Jerusalem and Damascus — the latest of the lawmaker’s personal shuttle missions. In the past, Specter’s optimistic pronouncements after his trips have not been matched by progress in negotiations.
On Monday, Specter told reporters in Israel that his three-hour talk with President Hafez Assad convinced him that “this may be an especially good time to press the Israeli-Syrian track.”
Specter said that the peace process could be boosted by more direct presidential involvement in both Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian talks.
“This is something that I discussed with President Clinton shortly before departing for this trip, and the president has stated his willingness to do just that,” Specter said. “I’m especially interested to see that Foreign Minister Shara is now en route to Paris, where President Chirac has been anxious to be a broker in the peace process, and my sense that it is preferable for President Clinton to undertake that role.”
He also said that progress in Syrian-Israel negotiations — which he termed the “easier” of the two tracks — could boost Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Specter said that the gap between Israel and Syria is mostly a matter of positioning, not substance. On the question of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, Specter was cautious.
“They don’t need any advice from an American senator, but I’m sure that they will be very, very careful to be protecting the Israeli settlements,” he said.
Specter, who incensed Jewish groups in 1990 by opposing sanctions on Iraq before the Gulf War, referred to the growing debate in Washington over the longstanding policy of isolating Iran, which he termed “not a major success of the United States foreign policy, to put it mildly. … My own personal view is that the United States has to reevaluate our Iranian policy, especially in light of what the Iranian president has said recently about opening up discussions. Iran is a major power, a major problem, and Iran cannot be ignored.”
Rabbis In Town For Activism Training
What’s the connection between Jewish religious tradition and progressive political activism? A group of 65 or so Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis are due in town this weekend to get the answer at the first-ever rabbinic activism seminar sponsored by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
“The object is to help them become better social action rabbis — to be able to articulate to their congregants the connections between Jewish texts and values and some of today’s most critical issues,” said Mark Pelavin, the RAC’s associate director.
Participants will focus on economic justice, religious liberty and environmental issues, he said. They will look at political advocacy skills like how to work with local religion writers and Jewish newspapers and how to write effective letters to legislators.