Orit Zuaretz revealed in today’s plenary session that up to 80,000 telephone calls were made to Kadima members to put pressure on her and other Kadima MK’s not to attend the J Street Conference. [One can only speculate that this is one measure of how important J Street has become in its 3 short years. Why would you need to discourage a politician from attending a conference that is not meaningful?] Despite this pressure, four members of Kadima and one member of Labor came to address the gathering.
Margie and I were able to join the four Kadima members, Yoel Hasson, Shlomo Molla, Dr. Nachman Shai and Orit Zuaretz for dinner, although by all rights, they should have been exhausted. Instead, it turned out to be a lively affair.
Some important comments/critiques/suggestions for J Street:
1. J Street should strongly get behind a push to release Gilad Shalit. As Daniel Ben Simon said in the session: the Gaza Blockade will stay in place until he is returned. Shlomo Morra emphasized the importance of each Israeli soldier.
2. J Street needs to be careful in dealing with issues involving the UN. The UN is NOT legitimate in the eyes of the Israelis. Examples: Goldstone and the recent Veto position.
3. It is time for Obama to go to the Knesset and tell them that he supports Israel. The Israeli people need to hear it directly from him
4. The question of the newly appointed Ambassador to be, Dan Shapiro, came up. They don’t know him well – but say that he needs to be able to be tough. I believe that Dan Shapiro is a very straight shooter. Hopefully he will be able to back that up with a strong backbone.
5. There was a sense that the Netanyahu coalition will not last long and there will be elections in the next year or two. Speculation was that some sitting at the table might get important leadership positions in the government if that were to happen.
6. Finally, the most fascinating topic of the evening was in regard to Nachman Shai. Dr. Shai is in his mid-60’s but many of the other Israelis at the table were in their 30’s. And to a person, they all said that they all looked up to and remembered Shai as the the person who calmed the whole country during the first Iraq war. At that time of Scud missile attacks, air raid sirens would sound and Israelis would dive into their safe rooms. Well, instead of having another siren to call ‘all-clear’, Nachman Shai, who was the spokesman for the IDF at the time, would come on the radio and TV and say, “OK, Everyone relax. The danger is over. Have a drink of water. Everything is OK.” They all said that his voice and demeanor brought them great comfort at a time of national anxiety.
Margie and I arrived from the airport as the mid-day plenary was just beginning. Mona Eltahawy held sway and pulled no punches. Direct, refreshing, honest – she told the audience that the unrest in the Middle East is NOT about Israel. Nor is it about Islam. These uprisings are a demonstration of the frustration and anger of the young Arabs – not the old line Muslim Brotherhood or any other organized groups. The Arab youth no longer view the world through the lens of state-controlled television, but instead have a multi-faceted view of the world provided by the internet. They now want both economic opportunity and more democratic freedoms. She expressed frustration that for years, the world claimed that the Arab world showed little interest in democratic ideals or in approaching their issues in a non-violent way. Now that that is exactly what is happening – there is no support. Now that Arab non-violence is burgeoning, the world should embrace it.
There was one clear theme that emanated from the panel as a whole: the Israelis and Palestinians will not be able to come to an agreement on their own. Rather, there needs to be a third party (read: United States) that forces the two to come to the table and make an agreement.
Afternoon plenary with 5 MK’s (4 Kadima and 1 Labor) also produced some interesting moments. The most surprising was the humorous banter between Dr. Nachman Shai (Kadima) and Daniel Ben Simon (Labor). The Labor Party itself was the butt of several jabs, but Shai made a very counter-intuitive statement that he really wanted the Labor Party to win more seats! The reason: Kadima NEEDS Labor to be on their Left. Otherwise, Kadima is not in the center.
Shai made an extremely strong and powerful statement that the blockade of Gaza should not, and would not, end until Galid Shalit is returned. The whole country is willing to give up hundreds of prisoners for their kidnapped soldier.
And the final, most striking statement belonged to Daniel Ben Simon. He said that Israel has the might and the power to make peace, but not the courage.
My good friend, Dan Cedarbaum, forwarded me and a couple of other folks a very telling article from last Friday’s Forward, Liberal Denominations Face Crisis as Rabbis Rebel, Numbers Shrink.
My response was: “Pretty grim.
We need a magic bullet to get folks believing again. How about turning LA into a huge pillar of salt?”
Of course, this was written with a large wink. But Richard Marker made an interesting reply, part of which was: “Mark, at the risk of challenging your assumption, I don’t believe that the answer is to get people to believe again but to accept that we are truly in a post-denominational era and adjust institutions to that.”
To which my good friend, Kayla Niles*, responded with one of the most succinct and elegant descriptions of the state of Judaism in the United States (if not the world) today. Here it is:
I think the faith that is required is in the idea that Judaism is not the province of individuals and individual synagogues, but rather the enterprise of the Jewish People, and that national and supra-national organizations matter. I think that the people in the “post-denominational” American synagogues would be caught up short very quickly if there was no organized voice to, for example, to speak for us in Israel on the conversion bill, or lobby the American govt on behalf of Jews or Israel (from either side of the politics) or produce textbooks for their children’s education, or run camps for them or other services that synagogues cannot do alone. The problem is identifying the right issues, fixing the groupings so they are properly aligned and do not compete with each other, and marketing the premise to the people. We are not a religion. We are a tribe, and connections need to be there to make sense out of our religious civilization.
Whew! That is a weighty statement – but one that resounds with truth. Thank you for that, Kayla.
* Kayla has been fighting the battle of “saving” American Jewry for as long as I have known her (which has been about 8 years or so). I am sure that there is more than this, but here are some highlights:
She owned and ran a Jewish overnight camp
She was one of the original Board members of the Foundation for Jewish Camp
She served on the Board of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation (z”l) and the Board of the Jewish Reconstructionist Camping Corporation
She was co-chair of the orginal capital campaign that funded Camp JRF – which has become one of the foremost successes of the Recon Movement
She has served on multiple Recon synagogue boards
Richard Goldwasser, one of the members of J Street Chicago’s leadership, has just started a blog entitled Blog Zahav. His first piece is Will You Be Pro-Israel? in which he questions what actually defines the term “Pro-Israel”. Like myself, Richard believes in going to first sources. And as you can see from this excerpt he chooses the cornerstone document – the Declaration of Establishment of the State of Israel. When David Ben-Gurion read this document to the World, I believe that he set out the lens through which all discussions about Israeli policy should be viewed.
Granted, no person nor country can ever live up to all of their ideals, all of the time, but we all must be careful not to stray too far from them. There can be a Point of No Return where a country unknowingly loses its way. Many critics contend that we American Jews have no right to comment on nor criticize Israeli policy. My answer is simple – it is actually our obligation to provide a perspective that the Israelis themselves may not have. It is our duty to help the Israelis live up to their own ideals which Richard so aptly cites:
As a lawyer and a Jew, for answers I usually look to the relevant texts. And so I have here, finding the answer in Israel’s own Declaration of Independence.On May 14, 1948, the Jewish People’s Council, assembled in Tel Aviv, issued the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel. The declaration defines Israel as a Jewish state, and in extraordinary language, elucidates the standards that the State will uphold. (Notably, six months earlier, on November 29, 1947, the United Nations enacted General Assembly Resolution 181, dividing the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, into “independent Arab and Jewish states.”)Israel’s founding document declares that Israel “will be based on freedom, justice and peace. . .; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
I first encountered Daniel Shapiro, rumered to be the next Ambassador to Israel, along with Dennis Ross and Tony Cordesman, in the summer of 2008 when he was Candidate Obama’s Jewish outreach liaison. The scene was at an Obama event held at Rosy’s (Lee Rosenberg, current President of AIPAC) hamishe outdoor Sukkah. This was, of course, at a time when not only were the election results uncertain, but Obama’s Israel bona fides were very much in question by many of the heads of mainstream American Jewish organizations. The featured speaker was Dennis Ross, the current White House Middle East advisor and upcoming speaker at the J Street Conference in Washington. Ross spoke of Obama’s commitment to Israel – but also, if elected, to the importance Obama would give to prioritizing the Israeli-Palestinian issue and finding a two-state solution to the problem, while still maintaining the United States’ long-term alliance and special relationship to Israel. [Of course, this is precisely the course President Obama took after he was elected.] Shapiro also spoke briefly and echoed these sentiments.
I was able to speak with Mr. Shapiro briefly and express my concerns about the neo-cons’ drumbeat for military action against Iran vis-a-vis both Israel and the US. Specifically, I emphasized the importance of two factors that were ignored in the run up to the Iraq War. First, evaluating the other sides’ behavior not only through the lens of its current government – but also with full consideration of its cultural and historical background. In Iran’s case, this means from the Persian empire through the
assassination coup d’etat against Mosaddegh in 1953 to the 1979 revolution. Second, the importance of analyzing the opponent’s military options. Iran is not Iraq, and by all accounts it has been preparing for an Israeli and/or American attack for many years. As far as domestic US politics goes, it is much easier to get support for bombing than for diplomacy – but in Iran’s case, totally reckless without evaluating its likely military response and what effect that might have, not only on the region, but on the entire world – and communicating these evaluations to the general public. His response was that he understood fully the issues I had raised and agreed with the importance of considering them when evaluating US policy. My first impression was that he was extremely intelligent, knowledgable, and fair-minded.
My next encounters with Mr. Shapiro were when he addressed J Street leadership on at least two occasions. This was very early on in J Street’s history and its status as an important voice in the American Jewish community had yet to be established. I believe that the choice to use him to address J Street was not just because of his position in the Administration (i.e., a rung or two down from the top) – but because of who he is as a person. Granted my experience is very limited, but he always seemed very thoughtful, serious and direct. I also felt that he was very warm and comfortable being in a room with J Streeters and appreciated the fact that he was speaking to an audience that was deeply knowledgable about the issues and could understand the nuances of the global politics of the region. That is, he did not appear either defensive about or threatened by J Street’s progressive positions. In that regard, perhaps he just has a pretty good poker face (though in a personable kind of way), but that should serve him well in dealing with Israeli politicians.
One extremely positive aspect of this appointment is that I believe Mr. Shapiro is a person who will be acceptable to the entire American Jewish community. Yet, my hope is that he will not have to be an apologist to the American Jewish right, but instead, will be able to communicate the Administration’s policies firmly and directly even when they may diverge from the “Israel – Right or Wrong” line of thinking. Let’s hope that this is good for those of us who believe that NOW is the time for the US to use its leverage to get both sides to make an agreement happen.
- The first thing that the interviewer asked him was what led him into public service and he immediately mentioned a very specific particular moment. It was a speech given by Adlai Stevenson at the Princeton Senior Class Dinner of 1954. He actually mentioned it several times and said it was the best call to service that he had ever heard. I haven’t had a chance to read it, but if you want to take a look, it is here.
- And that leds to an absolutely fascinating technological aspect to the publication of his book. They have scanned in over 20,000 documents supporting this book and these papers are all available at www.rumsfeld.com. As you are reading the book, you can actually look up on the website any of the documents that are endnoted – to read the entire content for yourself. That is a very exciting, and gutsy, thing for him to do. I was quite impressed with that transparency. Of course, presumably any of the smoking gun documents mistakenly got fed into the shredder instead of the scanner! Oh well, everyone makes mistakes.
- Most surprisingly and unexpectedly, I found him to be quite charming. He was funny and a times a bit self deprecating. I had expected him to be harsh and wooden – but he was actually anything but.
- So, to build on that last thought. It points out the necessity of forging real fact-to-face civil relations with those with opposing viewpoints. I believe that there is a physiological reason that this is so important. As a society, the fact that we are dependent on getting information from television and internet video creates a real problem. These media fool us into thinking that we are experiencing reality – at a distance (tele-vision is literally, distance-vision). But this is not real reality. Not only do these forms of viewing present people literally in two-dimensions, on some level they give us a false sense that we are experiencing that person as if we were with them far away. But we do not get a full-dimensional experience of that person – instead we get a sort of fun-house mirror experience – what we see is indeed going on, but there are many elements of a real experience that are missing (smells, affect, real tone of voice, what is going on off camera, etc.) As a result, there is a separation that allows us to paint those that we disagree with in a much more dehumanized absolutist light. Things are either black or white, good or evil, right or wrong. Nuance is lost – and even worse – human-ness itself is lost.
I hope that we will all make an effort to meet our “enemies” face-to-face. Hopefully, that will be one small step towards civility in this society.