October 31, 2010

IPC and the Upper-Middle Class Aspen (originally posted Dec. 8, 2008)

The IPC [Inter-Parliamentary Conference on Human Rights and Religious Freedom] has now been held in Brussels, Rome, Washington, and Scranton – the upper-middle-class Aspen (who knew that Real America was full of Democrats??). Scranton could also become New York’s answer to such Washington-centric retreats as Greenbrier and Wye Plantation. The IPC has its own mission, but Northeast Pennsylvania seems wise enough to benefit as well as contribute.

On a very tight budget, the IPC has proven itself to be an important forum, and not just for parliamentarians. Diplomats, academics, journalists and business and religious leaders all have a voice, since the solutions must be found and implemented collectively. The combination of issues discussed and the tenor of debate is unique among international gatherings. The Interparliamentary Union is a vital and necessary organization, yet it connects the chairs speakers of parliaments rather than those who are literally the “movers” and “shakers”. Also, it hardly addresses religious sensibilities, spiritual inspiration, or controversial and imperative human rights challenges. There really was no IPC before, so Joe Grieboski had to invent it.

This year’s deliberations generated not only their own buzz, addressing head-on a number of “hot spots” and perennial international dilemmas, but also provided critical data for achieving the IPC’s natural global mandate. The formal panels are useful, and next year might offer an opportunity to try variations including one or two sessions using more interactive, talk-show formats. The Ethiopian First Lady and the Palestinian Deputy Foreign Minister lent some prestige to the proceedings, and their role was not limited to formal speeches. There is a growing constituency of IPC veterans who are already changing the face of their regions and countries as a result.

As last week’s attacks in Mumbai demonstrated – on multiple levels – religion is too often abused or blamed for crimes of violence and assaults on universal values and fundamental humanity. It is past due that religions be allowed to contribute their genius and their billions of followers to resolving these and other conflicts, and to tell some of the success stories from alleviating suffering and advancing human fulfillment. Scranton, a city of industrious immigrants still arriving from every corner of the globe, is well poised.

Although the Far East, Latin America and Western Europe were under-represented this year, as were certain Islamic streams, but each annual session faces its own circumstances. If next year’s session convenes again in the same location, which provided flawless facilities and administration, the turnout should be even better.

With the United Nations’ New York headquarters entering dry dock for the next several years, Scranton offers most governments an attractive, growth-oriented market for investment and trade, and only two hours’ drive from New York and a bit further from Washington.

Saudi Interfaith Initiative at the UN - Who Better (originally published Nov. 14, 2008)

This week’s high-level meeting at the United Nations in New York, devoted to the interfaith dialogue initiated by Saudi King Abdullah, has attracted some skepticism as well as outright rebuke from human rights organizations. Am I the only one who gets bored by the obvious?

News Flash: Saudi Arabia persecutes minorities, subjugates women, and denies most forms of rudimentary democracy. And, like many fellow members of the Islamic Conference, the Kingdom has been pushing for international limits on the defamation of religion, which is code for limiting freedom of expression.

Deep breath, count to ten.

In its six decades, the United Nations has never hosted a gathering where serious leaders with any real power or influence addressed issues of religion and mutual respect head-on. The UN, based in the “separation of Church and State” capital New York and dominated by secular diplomats trained in the post-Enlightenment academies of Western Europe, has been almost pathologically uncomfortable with the physical presence of religion.

Counter-Terrorism, Extremism, and Dialogue (originally delivered Nov. 24, 2008)


The United States is a notable venue for a conference on religious freedom and for a panel entitled “Counter-Terrorism, Extremism and Dialogue,” especially when some of the panelists have focused on Muslim persecution and terrorism against Christian minorities in various countries around the world. Ironically, the United States has just endured seven years of heightened suspicion of Muslims and Islam.

The winning candidate in our recent presidential election was the target of rumors and accusations that he is a Muslim. It may be a sign of progress, that some Americans used this as an excuse to vote against Barack Obama, since not so long ago the color of his skin would have been the issue. Yet, the United States still has a way to travel on the road to inclusive pluralism and mutual respect. As Senator Gordon Smith has emphasized, rather than disqualifying the United States from championing religious freedom around the world, our mixed history at home only obligates us further.

And, if anyone has trouble naming non-Muslim contemporary extremist movements, history abounds with significant examples.

Insulza's Insults? Please Wait Your Turn (originally posted Jan. 6, 2009

Apparently the Secretary General of the Organization of American States is not content with trying to keep 34 Western Hemisphere nations peaceful, secure, and prosperous. Jose Miguel Insulza, former (ie, not currently) Foreign Minister of Chile, in an official OAS press release, has blasted Israel for massacring "hundreds of innocent civilians". 

Full disclosure: I just spent the last few years -- in my spare time -- trying to inject a constructive respect for religious diversity and dialogue within the OAS. I had thought we were making progress.

Aside from the fact that not all the recent victims can be considered "innocent civilians" -- and most victims and all the intended targets appear to be militants at best, terrorist thugs at worst -- I'm trying to figure out what claim the OAS has over an issue already being addressed by the European Union, the United Nations, the Arab League and other international institutions with... some semblance of a relevant mandate?

As a humble student of diplomacy (I grant myself a B+ average), I understood that professional diplomats were supposed to effect a lessening of tensions and to make statements that will open new pathways to resolving conflicts. I fail to see how the OAS or its Secretary General can now follow up on what he himself labels his "absolute rejection" -- for its part, the United States has not always been so even-handed on the Palestinian issue, but...wow!

It may be mere coincidence that Chile has just hosted an international conference under UN auspices, devoted to supporting the Palestinian people in their struggle against Israeli occupation (but unrelated to the current hostilities).

Note to leaders of international institutions: please refrain from transparent promotion of national or partisan passions on company letterhead. Also, while I do not expect anyone to be "even-handed" on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, at least try not to appear completely one-handed; if you really want to hurt Israel diplomatically, don't squander all your credibility in the first paragraph. Even if Israel were the cruelest regime in the history of civilization, leave some dots for us to connect ourselves.

There have been too many truly innocent victims of Israel's current offensive, as there have been far too many on both or all sides in this longstanding toxic confrontation. It seems a mockery to suggest that all the victims of the past week have been innocent civilians, and undermines the legitimate concern about the dozens or scores who were not willing participants in the cynical and amoral attacks on Israeli population centers.

There are too many ongoing violations of human dignity in the Western Hemisphere for the OAS Secretary General to start calling plays for the Middle East. Unless, like the rest of us residing along the East Coast, he's hoping to get an appointment in the new Obama administration, in which case he may need to rethink his approach.

Whose Holocaust Is It, Anyway? (originally posted Oct. 5, 2009)

Q: Who owns the "Holocaust" brand? Who owns the right (or better, legitimacy) to apply the term "Holocaust" to any policy, social or religious issue?

A: No one

I call a moratorium. Nearly 65 years after the end of World War II, it is time to remove the "H" word from our political lexicons and leave it to the realm of history and thought. Ahh...whatever happened to thought?

Extremists on the right and left alternately use the term to characterize everything from abortion to lack of health insurance within the United States, to Israeli policies against the Palestinians, to anything that anyone wants to portray negatively.

World Leaders Address UNGA (originally posted Sep. 24, 2009)

It was farcical and almost amusing to hear Libya’s Col. Muammar Qaddafi remind the delegations to the United Nations that New York is a terrorist target and so out of the way that most of the guests still have jet lag when they give their speeches.

I remember the day 20 years ago when I learned of Pan Am 103 and heard over the radio the mothers shrieking in agony upon learning that their children would not be stepping off the plane at JFK. I was horrified, and still am. So it was at best ironic to hear Qaddafi suggest New York has outlived its usefulness as a host city for the UN Headquarters.

Separately, he got a healthy laugh from the delegates when he said the Security Council should be renamed the “Terror Council” – even he seemed amused.

I imagine Qaddafi will refrain from accusing Israel and the United States of violating the UN Charter, a document he pretended to tear in half during his 96-minute stream of consciousness lecture. If he were truly committed to abandoning the UN status quo – which he claims is based on original sin – he could have led a permanent walkout by all the African delegations, in his capacity as chair of the African Union. That would have made an impression, and would probably reduce the UN to a catering hall. For better or worse, he clearly intended no real changes, just a rhetorical advantage. (Note: sometimes, less is more.)

Better late than never for U.S. on rights council (originally published May 17, 2009)

Durban II has concluded and nearly everyone has gone home. Next month, however, brings an event far more significant and substantive than any racism review document or yet another outrageous speech by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: The United States will formally join the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Unlike the one-shot Durban Review Conference known as Durban II, the Human Rights Council meets several times a year in Geneva in regular session, and includes special sessions (usually to condemn Israel) and the ongoing multi-year review of every country’s human rights record. Its first three years, without benefit of U.S. membership, have been no picnic. The council emerged from the detritus of the former Human Rights Commission, which had earned its reputation as a shamelessly ineffective institution obsessively focused on condemning Israel.

U.S. membership on the council comes none too soon. Canada, the first nation to announce it would boycott Durban II, will soon rotate off as a member of the council. The European Union members on the council are generally well meaning, which is part of the problem. Negotiating a compromise resolution sounds worthwhile, but toning down a blatantly one-sided and unfair anti-Israel resolution to the point where it is only implicitly one-sided does no favors for Israel or the credibility of universal human rights. It only allows European governments to avoid voting “no” on what is objectively an anti-Israel resolution.

Read full op-ed at JTA.org.

New administration brings chance to redeem U.N. (originally published Feb. 18, 2009)

In allowing U.S. representatives to attend consultations this week in Geneva, in a serious attempt to detoxify the Durban Review Conference in April, President Obama has taken one of his first concrete steps to show the world that the United States is not afraid to engage and on our own terms.

Rather than immediately recasting the confrontational image perceived by so many during most of the Bush years, the new administration may take advantage of the lingering resentment and apprehension as well as Barack Obama's credibility as an agent of progress and change.

The world and the United Nations have been optimistically curious about Obama's internationalist agenda and his new team. As those preparing the new U.S. strategy know well, "new politics" has not overtaken the United Nations or many of the regimes represented at its headquarters in New York and Geneva. The U.N.'s notoriously cynical human rights agenda is no exception.

By exacting a price for joining the Durban process and other high-profile human rights mechanisms, and possibly even giving a second chance to the International Criminal Court, the post-Bush United States might be able to strike a better deal if it does so before the diplomatic swords are turned into ploughshares. The American Jewish community should be a natural advocate for this approach.

Read full op-ed at JTA.org.

Obama at the UN: International Operators Are Standing By (originally posted November 10, 2008)

On January 20, rather than immediately retracting the confrontational image perceived by so many during most of the Bush years, the new Administration may take advantage of the unpleasant status quo and of Barack Obamas credibility as an agent of progress.

As the Obama-Biden transition team takes over its temporary office space across from the White House, the world and the United Nations are optimistically curious about the internationalist agenda of the next U.S. President. As those preparing the new U.S. strategy know well, new politics has not overtaken the UN or many of the regimes represented at UN headquarters in New York and Geneva.

Perhaps the United States should be engaged in the Human Rights Council, or even the pre-flawed Durban anti-racism Review Conference scheduled for April 2009, or challenging Russia and China to admit their own national interest that
s release of U.S. hostages on the day of his inauguration, one more opportunity for Ayatollah Khomeini to punish Jimmy Carter, but it was clearly a good thing for the United States.

By exacting a price for joining the high-profile human rights mechanisms, and possibly even giving a second chance to the International Criminal Court, the post-Bush United States might be able to strike a better deal if it does so before the diplomatic swords are turned into ploughshares.
sticking it to George W. Bush is no longer on the menu. Ronald Reagan was not directly responsible for Iran

Genocide, Another Name For Murder (originally published Dec. 15, 2008)

The recent horrific events in Mumbai are still too raw for me to react with fairness and reason, but I cannot wait any longer. The Jewish center that was viciously attacked did not exist when I was living uptown by Byculla Bridge many years ago, but I have known the Chabad-Lubavitch movement for much longer than that. I also learned so much from the people of Mumbai and from its ancient Jewish community. Byculla is a crossroads of minority faiths, central to Jews, Catholics and Muslims, and no small number of Hindus.

The absence of inidigenous anti-Semitism is partly the result of the minuscule Jewish existence there compared to hundreds of millions of Hindus and nearly 100 million Muslims. The deep hatred and mistrust of Muslims was exacerbated by the creation of a separate Pakistani state from the remnants of India's Raj borders, and perhaps this (reciprocated) enmity fills the psychological and political void filled by anti-Semitism in many other societies, with or without the presence of actual Jews. The saltwater pool at Breach Candy Swim Trust is still shaped in the outline of oldtime Greater India, as a constant reminder of the power of a pencil and the limits of an idea. Truth be told, most Indians and Pakistanis do not come near Gandhi's pacifist and universalist tendencies. In other words, this attack could have happened in any real-world city.

The Chabad movement follows a strict code of religious practice, and its followers wear black hats and coats. Yet it is a paragon of informed faith and intellectual enlightenment, or openness to the outside world. The Chabad emissaries engage the outside world and are critical participants in general society, without losing their religious identity or their principles of faith. Their love and commitment for fellow Jews do not come at the expense of their responsibility to all humanity in the image of God. One American Jewish friend related to me that her shock was compounded by the notion that any Chabad emissary could be killed, because their pure and holy mission has always seemed to inoculate against physical harm.

Having just heard a speech from Francis Deng, Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General for the Prevention of Genocide, I have a few additional reflections. Genocide as a legal principle offers an elusive threshold. While we may not wish to see an entire people or nation disappear (or be the target of such an effort), I also have a hidden agenda in fighting genocide, and not just as a Jew whose family arrived in the United States decades before the Holocaust plunged Europe into a human hell. My hidden agenda is to prevent murder or individuals, and to preserve the hope of our place here on Earth. If criminalizing genocide can motivate nations and leaders to take action, then the Genocide Convention is a step forward. But even if mass murder is being perpetrated NOT on the basis of ethnicity or religion, we need to speak out against it.

Human rights begin with individual humans, and worthy arguments about fighting genocide do not preclude us from condemning and halting mass murder. The attacks in Mumbai were criminal. Despite the "global war on terrorism," they may not constitute war crimes, but they are no less criminal and outrageous. Our hearts still ache and the blood of the innocent still cries out. All of us, including my colleagues in the UN Secretariat, must continue doing what we can. And we must continue asking what more we can do. And we must continue to call evil by its name.

J Street - To Be Continued... (originally published Oct. 13, 2010)

J Street is caught between two opposite but equally potent reactions to revelations that it hid the involvement of arch-liberal philanthropist — and Israel critic — George Soros until “outed” by the conservative media. On the right, those who questioned the legitimacy of the liberal lobby’s policies and denied the pro-Israel bona fides of its leadership are gleeful now that Soros’s role and the group’s subterfuge have been revealed. On the other side, many who accepted J Street’s right to diverge from the seemingly monolithic Jewish establishment are feeling betrayed.
Yet another group had seen J Street’s unapologetic, progressive, left-wing offensive as opening more space for their own pragmatic, more center-left approach to issues like Middle East peace and Jewish identity. You might call this third group the intellectual “free riders,” and it would include some “establishment” Jews like myself.

Read more: http://forward.com/articles/132115/#ixzz13y4AsBlr

J Street: A Teachable Moment (originally posted Dec. 29, 2009)

(with Micah D. Halpern)

The rise of J Street has generated a good deal of anxious commentary and criticism in the Jewish community. Instead of seeing J Street as a threat to the American Jewish way of life or to the State of Israel, however, this can become a teachable moment.

Fears that J Street is our new President’s “go to” organization in the community are misleading and counter-productive. Administrations have always played favorites within the Jewish community, based on personal relationships, political support, organizational agendas…and financial contributions. The Obama team is no different. Despite appearances, there is no special loyalty to J Street, or to any other organization.

Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren recently charged that J Street “not only opposes one policy of one Israeli government, it opposes all policies of all Israeli governments. It’s significantly out of the mainstream.” The major American Jewish organizations remained silent on this apparent breach of diplomatic protocol, but at least one rushed to condemn a U.S. official who later referred to Oren’s remarks as “unfortunate”. The State Department has now issued a corrective statement praising Ambassador Oren. And yet, every battle the Jewish establishment wins seems to further diminish its influence and prestige.

By raising alarms about J Street, the community establishment has fed a misperception that J Street is the problem. J Street is not the problem. Neither is the Administration. J Street, a new lobbying group which describes itself as “the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement,” is just filling a vacuum left by limitations in the establishment’s bandwidth.

The established organizations have ensured that a mainstream consensus is represented to the U.S. Government based on several assumptions:

– Republican and Democratic administrations have their friends and there is nothing new under the sun.

– Regardless of who gets invited to the Roosevelt Room, at least someone at that table will reflect the community consensus on issues of national and international concern, including Israel. These concerns should not warp or waver just to favor or challenge the sitting President, but often the community does step up to help a President achieve his agenda – and not for partisan purposes.

– No organization has an automatic seat at the President’s table. Relevance needs to be earned, and American Jewry is involved enough in most issues that Jewish organizations and leaders regularly engage in White House statecraft.

– The United States of America has a bilateral relationship with the State of Israel which is defined primarily by contacts between officials of both governments, not community organizations. Nevertheless, American Jews can serve U.S. as well as Israeli interests by intervening at both ends as unofficial facilitators rather than as spoilers.

– Administrations always seek their own counsel on the Middle East, and having those interests around the table with other Jewish organizations can be helpful and adds to transparency.

– The primary goal of a White House meeting is to inform U.S. policies, not to keep score on who is “in” and who is “out”, despite the inevitable contrived intrigue.

– The President of the United States is just that. He is the decider, and he honors the Jewish community by seeking our input, not as lobbyists or complainers but as concerned, patriotic citizens.

J Street offers a credible platform for many of those with different views. Sometimes those views are strikingly different – but it is most unlikely that J Street and their ideas will displace the American Jewish organizational establishment in the immediate future.

Rather than worrying about how much influence they have in American politics and among American Jews, Jewish leaders should be concerned about how little impact they have in areas that Washington now considers relevant. Achieving a lasting Middle East peace in real time is one of those priorities, as is stopping a nuclear Iran, restoring America’s global legitimacy and credibility, economic recovery, health care reform, and climate change.

There are Executive and Congressional initiatives on each of these issues, and the Jewish establishment is letting others lead on what can and should be Jewish concerns – because the future of Israel and of the planet matters to the Jewish community.

As the Presidency and Congress pass from Democratic to Republican control and back again, it is typical for certain Jewish groups to be “in” and others to be “out”. The Obama administration is, admittedly, challenging some of the rules of Washington culture. But over time, the Jewish establishment has itself eroded the post-War non-partisan ethos – that the Jewish community includes Democrats and Republicans, but stands for the collective interests of Americans and Jews.

J Street is not a product of Barack Obama’s election as President, though it may be a by-product of American Jews taking certain things for granted. Most importantly, it should remind the Jewish establishment that if it does not bring innovative ideas that respond to U.S. needs and a broader constituency, others are happy to fill those seats with ideas of their own.