Right before I set out on a trip to Israel, I participated in a set of meetings with President Bush, Secretary of State Rice and House leadership from both parties. As the meetings, organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, were “off the record,” I am going to respect the request that we limit our public comments to general observations and not provide quotes.
Not surprisingly, I was most impressed by the Democratic leadership, which included, among others, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Tom Lantos (D-CA and Chair, House Foreign Affairs Committee) and Rahm Emmanuel (D-IL). While they shared their historic and genuine “credentials” regarding the Jewish community, all three of them addressed the important issues related to Israel, not hesitating to present nuanced and somewhat controversial views. This was illustrated by Pelosi and Lantos’ trip to Syria after the Speaker addressed the Israeli Knesset, and by their belief in the importance of supporting Palestinian Authority President Abbas in the wake of Gaza’s fall that morning to Hamas. There was a strong suggestion that despite “conventional wisdom” in the Jewish community that Bush is the best thing that has ever happened to Israel, the Democratic leadership believes that certain policies have actually worsened Israel’s strategic and security standing. They all urged a sustained effort by the administration to promote peace efforts in the region.
A visit to the White House is always an experience, regardless of the occupant at the time. That said, the President was quite predictable. In a very informal, relaxed manner he explained how the war in Iraq parallels Israel’s fight for survival; we have one common enemy, terror. He did allow that there are Palestinian moderates like Abbas that are worthy of support, but he did not express a sense of urgency in helping Israel pursue a peaceful resolution with the Palestinians. In a brief conversation with her after the 45-minute meeting, I got the impression that Secretary Rice favors stronger engagement on the peace-making front. This parallels what one reads in the papers about the struggle between Vice President Cheney and Rice on a variety of issues.
Several days before I arrived in Israel, Ehud Barak, Israel’s new Defense Minister, had edged our MK Ami Ayalon in a primary election to replace MK Amir Peretz as the leader of the Israel Labor Party. I was curious to see how Israelis were feeling about this development, in light of Barak’s previous reign as Prime Minister. Any number of people, regardless of party affiliation, shared the sentiment of one woman I spoke to that they will “sleep better at night” with Barak as Defense Minister. Laborites closer to Ayalon’s stated positions on the Palestinians acknowledged that Barak’s experience, while not all positive, would serve the party and the country well. Quite a few people linked Barak’s election with the selection of Simon Peres as the next president of Israel. Putting the Katzav scandal behind them and gaining a proven statesman was very popular among many Israelis.
Although it may not have received significant press outside of Israel, former Knesset Speaker and ex-Jewish Agency chair Avrum Burg’s new book, “Defeating Hitler” is a hot topic in Israel. In particular, an interview he gave to Ha’aretz’s Ari Shavit, evidently to promote the book, sparked talk show discussions, coffee shop conversations and quite a buzz at the World Zionist Organization (WZO) meetings I was attending in Jerusalem. Comments opposing the Law of Return and recommending to all Israelis to get a second passport (he has a French one) have disappointed former ideological colleagues and angered others. Right-wing members of the Zionist Executive proposed action that would deny him benefits accorded to former Jewish Agency leaders, including the right to be buried on Mt. Herzl. More moderate voices prevailed and the proposal never made it to the floor. In conversations with friends and followers of Burg, one constant refrain repeated itself. While agreeing with most of his criticism of Israeli society, people simply couldn’t accept his conclusion that somehow Zionism has failed. I’ll let you judge for yourself. This link to the Forward website includes the entire Ha’aretz interview with Burg and JJ Goldberg’s follow up interview with him. http://www.forward.com/blogs/bintel-blog/10911/
As I mentioned, I was in Israel for WZO meetings as well as Jewish Agency deliberations. Ze’ev Bielski, who leads both entities, had to work overtime to address an issue close to the heart of many Diaspora supporters of Israel. To set the stage, the Friday before the opening of the Agency Assembly, Bielski was interviewed in the Jerusalem Post, calling on the State of Israel to officially recognize the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism. In other words, he has “street cred” on this issue. The following week, the Assembly Resolutions Committee, of which I was a member, was presented with a resolution regarding the stall in conversions in Israel, mainly affecting the 275,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came to Israel under the Law of Return but are not Jews according to Orthodox criteria. It is a very complicated subject, but the short version is that a joint government-Jewish Agency conversion process was put in place years ago and in the minds of many, certain elements of the Orthodox establishment in Israel are blocking the final steps of conversion. Frustration is boiling over and the resolution threatened to cause a walk out of the Assembly by Orthodox elements. Bielski worked to have the resolution withdrawn, but the point was made. Both English papers published in Israel, Ha’aretz and the Jerusalem Post, covered the controversy and the Post ran an editorial blasting the Orthodox establishment in support of the Reform and Conservative movements. We will watch to see what progress is made on this important issue.
When participating in international gatherings, it is always interesting to meet people from other Jewish communities. Our Brazilian sister organization, Tnuat Avoda Brazil, has recently held a national membership drive, convened a convention and elected a new leadership group. They appear to have similar interests to Ameinu, particularly in the area of support for youth and student activities and the development of a progressive Zionist community in their country. We hope to maintain communication….can anyone translate their Portuguese newsletters for me?
Regular readers of my column know that I stay in close contact with our partners in the Negev Bedouin community, particularly with Amal el-Sana, the executive director of AJEEC, The Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation. While in Israel, Amal shared with me a remarkable turn of events. You may have read in the American or Israeli press that refugees from Darfur and other parts of Sudan have been arriving in the Negev. With no one to care for them, the Beer Sheva municipality has turned to local nonprofit organizations to take care of the refugees. AJEEC has been one of the agencies that have been taking them in, providing temporary housing and food. I can’t help but be struck by the sad irony of this situation, even more so after the events of last week when the Israel Land Authority demolished houses in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Um El Hiran. While discussions have been going on to find a resolution for the residents of these unrecognized villages, common sense and decency would suggest that the demolitions should be stopped. MK Ophir Pines-Paz, who chairs the Knesset’s Internal Affairs Committee, will be holding hearings this week and we hope some progress can be made on this important issue.
I’ll end my missive on a lighter note. If you haven’t heard yet, professional baseball has come to Israel. Yes, not basketball or soccer, but baseball. You can read the whole story at http://www.israelbaseballleague.com/main/, but there I was on Hambo Field at Kibbutz Gezer watching the Beit Shemesh Blue Sox playing the Tel Aviv Lightening on a hot June day. The refreshment stand was selling a version of hot dogs and hamburgers, kids were chasing foul balls and a six team league comprised of 20 Israelis and 100 players brought from all over the world was off and running. Three of the managers are former major leaguers—Ken Holtzman, Ron Blomberg and Art Shamsky—and the commissioner is Dan Kurtzer, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel. For the Israeli players, many American immigrants and the excited Israeli Little Leaguers, baseball is more important right now than Bush, Barak, Burg or Bielski. It is, after all, the Summer Game, wherever it is played.