December 19, 2013

Scaremongering for dollars? 'Tis the season...

Just to remind me the end of the tax year is nigh, my Facebook feed just produced a new report titled, "Europe Turns Blind Eye to Anti-Semitism". The content doesn't even back up that outrageous claim.

In the waning weeks of summer, before the Jewish High Holidays, numerous Jewish organizations send out "the sky is falling" alerts, with a donation card so we can avert yet another second Holocaust.

Now, we're just days away from the end of 2013, so this is our last chance to save the Jewish people and the State of Israel from imminent destruction and claim a juicy tax deduction. 

A win-win? No.

In this particular case, there may be no fundraising tie-in, just a byproduct of the general climate of sensationalism left behind.

These appeals and alerts not only trivialize and undermine the very real challenges and real successes of real people, including Jews. They not only eliminate all sense of proportion by crying wolf on cue. They insult our intelligence at best, and help turn otherwise well-meaning Jews into human echo chambers of fear and resentment at worst. 

Non-profits that need to resort to such outrageous and reckless messaging, just to fulfill their budget benchmarks, should consider whether their actual mission is worthy to begin with. 

December 17, 2013

ASA vote dooms a generation of Jewish students

The latest decision by the American Studies Association to "boycott" Israel and its institutions unleashes much negative energy, and my personal experience leads me to regret its long-term impact on a generation of students.

Many of my pro-Israel friends regularly bemoan the amount of attention the mainstream media devotes to Israel's foibles, and to sympathetic portrayals of Israel's adversaries and detractors. This complaint has some basis in fact, though it's also true that Israelis and American Jews invite coverage, and that much of the coverage is positive. As well, many of the problem stories originate in Israel's own mainstream media.

Meanwhile, many thousands of Jewish students have been deployed as "shock troops" against a "sophisticated campaign to discredit Israel on the college campus." That was in the 1980s, and one of many slogans drilled into my head at the time. I took my mission seriously, and devoted untold hours -- often working through the night -- to assure that the evil anti-Israel students were held off at the ramparts. 

No doubt, thousands of impressionable minds were spared as a result of my brave sacrifice. 

After the Cold War ended and while Oslo still held promise, I asked one big-name Hillel colleague how the less contentious atmosphere was affecting turnout to his programs. He told me numbers were up, and for the first time in years most students were coming in just because they wanted to be Jewish, and they were learning about... being Jewish.

Fast-forward to today, when another defiant Prime Minister of Israel is making waves, dovetailing with the legacy of another arrogant U.S. former President, and the Jewish (sorry, "pro-Israel") community is again issuing general calls for mobilizing brigades of students for early warning and propaganda response.

With various studies like the recent Pew report reporting the obvious decline in American Jewish affinity, giving Jewish college students a compelling sense of duty is a good way to keep them engaged (and, maybe, to get engaged to fellow Jews). But it's a little like the mismatched couple who stay together "for our children's sake". 

Only later, I realized how many educational and social opportunities I missed, in order to be a tuition-paying activist for Israel, along with a few other nice Jewish causes. Only later, I realized I might have learned something from all those disagreeable anti-Israel speeches, had I listened to their substance rather than red-flagging them for the Q&A and long reports back to HQ.

Yes, the American Studies Association has disgraced itself, and so many American studies scholars who have better things to do than wasting their time on ideological conferences and sloganeering. And yes, some Israeli academics will be unjustly inconvenienced and be denied proper recognition.

What I will lose sleep over is how this decision will generate ever more momentum for young Jews to forgo the campus experience, to shut their perceptive faculties, as they hunker down for full-fledged pitched battles in lecture halls, campus media, and student senates. Along the way, they may strengthen their identity as defensive, combative and doubt-free supporters of Israel. They will be encouraged and funded by our major organizations and lauded back home in their parents' congregations. 

Many will outgrow that phase, and many will not. Still more will only watch all this from the sidelines, later recalling Judaism as a pro-Israel answer to a potent but marginal group of academics. And then, 25 years from now, the Pew Center will call them up and ask whether they feel attached to the Jewish people. Spoiler alert...

November 24, 2013

Netanyahu's new rogue state is Israel

Hours after the five Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council (the "P-5") announced an interim deal that pulls Iran back from the threshold of nuclear weapons capacity, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done more than denounce the agreement. By reasserting Israel's right to attack Iran at its own discretion, even following this international accord, Netanyahu has effectively set Israel as the Middle East's new rogue state - even without actually attacking Iran.

With Iran formally committed to the agreement, Israel is now the nation standing defiantly against world opinion and the international community. None of those countries party to the agreement - including France and the United States - can now abide an Israeli attack. 

Israel is routinely criticized and condemned, with or without justification, for all manner of violations of international law. Yet it enjoys positive relations with dozens of countries and is seamlessly integrated into the global economy, and it has never directly defied the Security Council. Though the Council as an entity has not formalized the agreement, the P-5 and the European Union are all officially signed on. Agree or disagree (as I did elsewhere) with Netanyahu's assessment of the negotiations and the deal, he is now declaring Israel to be above the Security Council.

November 12, 2013

The inconvenient Beilis centennial

One hundred years ago this week, a jury in Kiev acquitted Mendel Beilis of ritual murder in the death of a Christian child. Half the jurors were literally card-carrying anti-Semites, members of the infamous Black Hundreds, and still they could find no plausible evidence to convict this Jewish man. The trial was followed around the world, and 20 years later, 4,000 people attended Beilis' funeral in New York.

Jay Beilis addressing diplomats and Ukrainian officials
Last month in Kyiv (note the Ukrainian spelling), we commemorated the Beilis centennial within the context of fighting anti-Semitism, with full participation by the Government of Ukraine and many other countries. As a consultant to the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, I had the opportunity to help facilitate. As Jay Beilis pointed out to us, countless thousands of Jews are alive today because his grandfather refused to confess to a crime he didn't commit, and the highly publicized trial inspired a new mass emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe years before the Holocaust, and before the mass-murder at Babi Yar, which occurred just the other side of town from our conference.

I believe the fact that neither Israel nor the United States is hosting any major event for this centennial reflects our own politics and mythology. In Israel, they already have the earlier Dreyfus Affair and Theodor Herzl narrative. In the States, the Jewish community is largely defined (and self-identified) as a post-Holocaust community -- even though most of us are descended from pre-War arrivals. And if there's a centennial to mark here, it will be the Leo Frank trial, which ended in the lynching of an Atlanta Jewish community leader and is popularly linked to the founding of the legendary Anti-Defamation League (which was also among the cosponsors of the Kyiv conference).

Ironically, U.S. officials were precluded from participating in the Kyiv conference due to the federal government shutdown. Even The Forward, whose Yiddish-language forerunner The Forverts at the time promoted Beilis as the trial of the century, was unavailable to participate in or report on the Kyiv commemoration. 

As a culture, we choose our heroes or they are chosen for us, and then we choose or invent new heroes when it's convenient. This may be something America and Israel have in common, as new (or renewed) societies.

At least the record has been honored where it was set. 

November 8, 2013

Netanyahu's fantasy date with destiny

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has consistently acted as though Israel has a veto on any negotiations with Iran, as though reminding world powers - and Tehran - that Iran's nuclear program is only a concern for Israel and not for the entire region and the international community. Every step forward in the process has been derided, every sanction discounted, even as he says it's better than nothing. Even as he acts like the judge for all nations.

Netanyahu speaks as though only he and only Israel are concerned or actively fighting Iran's ambitions. He has already ridiculed the discussions underway in Geneva as "The Deal of the Century," even though limiting - and not completely dismantling - Iran's nuclear program was always the stated goal. He warns us all not to trust Iran, as though anyone outside Tehran trusts that regime. Anyone. This isn't about world leaders being naive, it's about working within political and strategic realities.

What Netanyahu won't acknowledge, is that neither Israel nor America has a way to decisively stop Iran's quest for nuclear weapons. The best option is some deal for verifiable controls on further enrichment and weaponization. While dismissing the use of sanctions or negotiations, the Prime Minister has offered no realistic alternative. None. 

Despite his tough talk, there is no surefire way to deny Iran a nuclear capability. Sanctions, blockade and assassinations have pushed Iran to the point of considering measures to verify and limit its program going forward. There has never been a point at which any U.S. President or Israeli Prime Minister could have permanently neutralized Iran's program, either successfully and effectively or without Israelis paying a catastrophic political and economic cost. Israel's own military experts have routinely warned against attacking Iran.

October 30, 2013

Can Jewish leaders take 'yes' for an answer?

It's happening again... The Obama administration is inviting American Jewish leaders into the White House for substantive, high-level consultations on matters integral to U.S. and Israeli national interest, and (some of) these American Jewish leaders are publicly trash-talking the Administration within the same news cycle. 

During President Obama's first term, this happened a few times, when organizational leaders leveled complaints and demands to the President's face and to reporters. Last year, Jewish leaders were so critical of the President's nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, they gave journalists 'anonymous' negative quotes during the President's own Hanukkah party -- and trust me, that's no easy invite to snag.

This week, the President's National Security and other senior advisers met with Jewish leaders to discuss the Administration's approach to nuclear negotiations with Iran. Even as the White House guests described the meeting as "constructive", one of those same leaders was blasting Secretary of State John Kerry for publicly refusing to "succumb to fear tactics" by critics of the U.S.-Iran talks.

If the Secretary of State states something on Monday, and you're meeting the National Security Adviser on Tuesday, why not use that meeting to raise your concerns? Especially if your bone with the Secretary is that -- if he had any implied criticisms of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu (the perennial Cassandra on Iran) -- he "should have made them privately." 

Substantively, there seems to be no alternative to talks with Iran, since a military solution is at best costly, and unlikely to achieve a decisive outcome. It's Obama, and not Bush or Netanyahu, who succeeded in instituting "crippling" multilateral sanctions against Iran, all for the purpose of securing a realistic halt to Iran's weapons-oriented nuclear projects. If Netanyahu and Obama (and Kerry) have a difference of opinion, do they really need an American Jewish arbitrator?

In this case, the particular Jewish leader's concern was that friends don't need to air their disagreements in public. By this measure, various Jewish leaders don't appear to be "friends" of the President or his administration, or his Secretary of State. But as loyal Americans and Israel advocates, they might consider which is the best path to securing our shared future, one based on trust and humility, not grandstanding and paranoia.

September 25, 2013

What I saw, and didn't, at the #SocialGoodSummit

I was lucky enough to get to this year's Social Good Summit, sponsored by -- and also featuring -- some of the world's leading change agents. Overall, this was an incredible opportunity to hear and cross-tweet vision, goals and implementation strategies for moving our planet to where it needs to be. One cannot help but walk away feeling inspired and hopeful that there are thousands of social entrepreneurs creatively seizing opportunities and addressing problems in ways that can be shared and applied by others -- if we can do a better job of connecting. 

Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg, Fast Company Editor
Robert Safian, and Hope North founder Okello Sam
Malala Yousefzai, Al Gore, Melinda Gates, Richard Branson, Anthony Lake, David Miliband and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt were among the well-known VIPs, but every speaker was on the mark and worthy of a million Facebook "likes". On the sidelines, I was also able to engage around a table with a top corporate leader and his partner on the ground, who are using mobile technology to bring stability and education to victims of a generation of conflict in Uganda. The lessons were numerous, and the incredible wealth of knowledge and spirit will take weeks to fully absorb.

My caveats lay in a few areas, mostly not the fault of the organizers. I list them here and now in the hope they might benefit next year's planning.

September 15, 2013

In India, one step forward, two steps back

The death sentences for four of the New Delhi gang rapists are a hopeful sign of accountability amid India's carefree rush to urbanization. But the more momentous news of the week revealed a major step backward for Indian society: The nationalist BJP Party named Narendra Modi as its candidate for Prime Minister in next year's national elections. With his ascension, unfortunately, India will probably not become a global good citizen anytime soon.

In India's 65 years of statehood, rarely has one man come to embody ethnic and religious hatred -- and violence -- as Modi has in his years as Chief Minister of Gujarat, the state sandwiched between Maharashtra and Pakistan. Hundreds of Muslims were butchered in 2002, in a wave of attacks egged on by Modi. 

Not only is Modi now the official flag-bearer of the BJP, but by next year he could be the leader of a major world power. If so, then this avowed hater of Muslims and of Muslim-majority Pakistan will have his finger on the button of India's nuclear arsenal, designed with but one purpose: the destruction of Pakistani cities. 

It should be remembered that when Serbia gave up Slobodan Milosevic to the International Criminal Tribunal, it was for political gains and not because Serbs were suddenly remorseful for their collective genocide against Bosnian Muslims. Serbian society still has far to go in earning a place at the civilized table, and so may India. 

The formalizing of Modi's candidacy is already a serious step away from the rule of law. His election would change the face of a country with 1.25 billion people and a decent stash of nuclear warheads waiting for a good excuse.

May 29, 2013

Does Israel get to define "anti-Semitism"?

A true Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism should not be sponsored by Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which understandably has its own agenda -- and limitations -- regarding the fight against anti-Semitism. The Israeli Government's priority has to be promoting and defending the State of Israel, which explains why Prime Minister Netanyahu's video greeting stressed anti-Semitism as the motivation for criticism of Israel, including the common claim that Israel isn't pursuing peace; he barely mentioned anti-Semitism as a phenomenon targeting Diaspora Jews.

With Senator (then-Rep.) Ben Cardin
at OSCE's 2004 Berlin Conference
A true Global Forum should be sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee and Simon Wiesenthal Center, with local Jewish communities and national governments, including Israel. Multilateral organizations, especially the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Organization of American States (OAS), ought to facilitate. 

Politicians should attend and deliver opening remarks, but only bonafide and relevant experts should present. This means people with credentials in research and polling, media, law enforcement, education, and human rights training. The role of community leaders and lobbyists should be to get people in the room, respond to the presentations with real-life concerns, and help implement the best practices which emerge from the proceedings.

When it comes to anti-Semitism, Israel hardly has all the answers, and it carries a clear conflict of interest -- its national interest. It's not a bad idea to have periodic assemblies devoted to ensuring effective hasbara ("explaining" or promoting Israel). But that's a far cry from the nuts and bolts of overcoming anti-Semitism. If Israel owns the "anti-Semitism" brand, then it will ultimately be about Israel and hasbara, not about combating anti-Semitism on the ground. And in our real world, that makes it far less appealing to the very governments we need on board. We can't fight anti-Semitism and defend the State of Israel in the same place at the same time, and expect to succeed in both, or perhaps either one.

May 13, 2013

Bibi talks the talk, about talks

The latest Mideast peace effort by Secretary of State John Kerry and some of the Gulf states is encouraging, but there's little new that hasn't been available to Israel and the Palestinians during the past five years. A little reality check never hurts.

A top Palestinian representative has just revealed that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators had a series of talks over two years ago, but no negotiations, until the Israeli side discontinued the talks -- apparently without explanation. These preliminary 'talks about talks' even culminated in a face-to-face between Yasser Abed Rabbo and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The first reaction I'm reading. and which I share, is that this means there's still some hope for an eventual return to kind of negotiations that had once been seen as natural and unremarkable. 

My own second reaction? Abed Rabbo's claim refutes Netanyahu's narrative that there is no one to talk to, that Israel is ready to re-open negotiations but for the unwillingness of the Palestinians to return to the table. 

Last fall, when the Palestinian Authority scored upgraded State Observer status at the United Nations, Netanyahu called the move a violation of the 1993 Oslo Accords which undermines the possibility of a two-state solution. As I wrote at the time:

...the average Israeli would literally laugh at the idea that the Oslo Accords were anything but a failure, so why pretend they still care about preserving or fulfilling Oslo? Arguing that Netanyahu actually wants to negotiate a realistic two-state solution, without preconditions; that Israel eschews unilateral actions; that Israel has no partner for negotiations -- this should be insulting to most people who have an understanding of the issue. Those making such claims come off as either dishonest or naive. And it does not help Israel advance its case to anyone who's not already convinced.

March 10, 2013

Obama's low-risk, low-yield Israel visit

Any visit by the U.S. President is a big deal, especially to a country like Israel that follows every hiccup in Washington with great interest and anxiety. But from the American side, it will be more show than tell, with little chance of candor or contention. 

President Obama's upcoming visit to Israel will not be launching or leading to any new ventures into Middle East peacemaking. Both he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are still getting their teams in place after each was just re-elected. And there's still plenty of institutional memory in the Obama White House to understand what Hillary Clinton learned from her husband's experience, and from her own as recent Secretary of State: Netanyahu is just not that guy.

Thanks to Netanyahu -- and many Israelis evidently are grateful for this -- Israel's 15 minutes of relevance are now up, at least for this political era. By relevance, I mean, as far as making the Middle East easier for the United States; being considered part of Washington's decision team along with other allies like the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Japan, NATO, et al. Ironically, the closest partnership in the U.S.-Israeli relationship is now between Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and newly confirmed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, whose nomination was almost torpedoed by Netanyahu's true friends in Washington.

Obama tried to move the Israeli and Palestinian sides back to where they were just before Netanyahu, with regular talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, but to no avail. Obama even earned himself lectures from Netanyahu, in his own White House. Rather than looking ridiculous for trying to get a full-fledged Israeli settlement freeze before Netanyahu completed sidelining the Palestinian moderates, Obama instead can focus on Syria and Iran. By his response to those two imminent threats, it's Netanyahu who often looks a little silly -- complaining of U.S. appeasement one day, affirming Washington's and even the UN's strategies the very next day.

The President knows to tell Israelis -- and Netanyahu -- just what they want to hear: Great job, "never again" (Iran, Holocaust), number-one ally anywhere, got your back, Iron Dome, Am Yisrael Chai. Meet some students, collect Presidential medal, and board Air Force One. It appears he won't even have to brave an address to the newly sworn-in, untested and traditionally testy Knesset.

As Obama begins his second and final term, he still has to contend with Afghanistan, Syria and Iran in the Middle East, plus Russia, China and other challenges worldwide. Domestically, he faces his biggest headaches on just about every possible front. With no substantive Watergate-style scandal that needs distracting by Henry Kissinger, there would be little reason to devote precious political capital to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations even if it looked like Israel and the Palestinians were available. And they are not.

A few weeks ago, I waved a yellow flag over the notion that assigning moderate Tzipi Livni to shepherd the peace process was anything more than a cosmetic bluff by Netanyahu. As Justice Minister and head of her own new party, Livni will be in no position to take any meaningful peace initiatives, especially since the ruling Likud Party will be keeping the Foreign Affairs portfolio for itself. This means anything she tries will be subject to interference and veto by Avigdor Lierberman -- likely to return as Foreign Minister -- and the Prime Minister himself. When Lieberman filled in for Netanyahu to deliver Israel's speech to the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly, he spent much of his time justifying population transfer -- 'nuf said?

Netanyahu will get to impress his hometown crowd, and Obama will have kicked off his second term by silencing many of his critics from within the pro-Israel (and Jewish establishment). If something unforeseen suddenly creates an opening for renewed peace efforts, Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry can always answer the call as needed -- as long as they don't think they'll be wasting their time. There's been enough of that already.

February 20, 2013

Don't worry, Livni will not be making peace

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's choice of his political foe Tzipi Livni to be his new Justice Minister, and to oversee the Palestinian peace track, suggests there will be little meaningful Israeli effort on that front in the foreseeable future. Picking Livni to "run" the peace process gives him a six-seat edge in assembling the rest of his coalition, and it keeps Livni preoccupied with an issue that most Israelis now consider secondary.

During his past four years as Prime Minister, regardless of shortcomings on the Palestinian side, Netanyahu has shown little urgency or enthusiasm for re-engaging them or shoring up the moderate faction led by Mahmoud Abbas. Although he lost Knesset seats in the latest election, this had little to do with the peace process, which only ranked as a priority with those voting for... Tzipi Livni. And Livni scored worse than expected at the polls.

Livni does not enjoy Netanyahu's confidence, and she now controls only six seats through her new Tnu'ah (Movement) Party -- meaning Netanyahu has little to lose by ignoring or undermining anything she does. Even better, it helps keep any of his more powerful competitors (especially the pragmatic Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid) from using their significant capital to push the peace envelope.

Ironically, those who voted for Livni because they wanted a resumption of substantive peace talks with the Palestinians would do better if Netanyahu placed the negotiations under a trusted ally or lieutenant, rather than an arch-rival who commands only six out of the total 120 seats in the Knesset. 

And the Justice Minister, really? From Camp David to Oslo (which included the treaty with Jordan), any effective peace process has been run through the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign Ministry. In his previous government, Netanyahu handled the peace process on his own, without involving then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, without any progress. Now he proposes to run the peace process out of the Justice Ministry, which has little infrastructure or disposition for running international negotiations outside of strictly legal matters and always in collaboration with the Foreign Ministry. 

Alternatively, if Netanyahu truly cared about getting back on track toward a two-state solution rather than leveraging his coalition strategy, he could have prevailed upon his predecessor and recent Defense Minister Ehud Barak to stay on with the peace portfolio. Barak knows all the players, and generally behaved himself (at least by Israeli standards) under Netanyahu until last month's elections when he left the Knesset. He enjoys the trust of President Obama and his team, which has eluded Netanyahu. And with no Knesset seats of his own, Barak would be exclusively answerable to Netanyahu and immune from the temptations of coalition infighting.

What does Livni get from this deal? A former Foreign Minister herself, she gets to try for results with the Palestinians, against uncertain yet formidable odds. Perhaps more importantly, she gets to be in the government, which is the best consolation prize for someone who thinks she should be the Prime Minister and got kicked out of leadership in her former Kadima Party. Knowing that with six seats she will not be leading the opposition this time around, Livni has little reason not to join the government.

Most likely, Netanyahu won't even need Livni's Knesset votes to maintain his ultimate coalition in the long term. He can use her early entry to the government to punish or at least pressure Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid and its 19 seats. Most of Lapid's voters expected Netanyahu to be Prime Minister, and trusted Lapid and his top deputies to be their voice WITHIN the government, so it's almost inconceivable he won't end up joining the coalition.

Having Livni on board now also helps Netanyahu prepare for President Obama's March visit, though a high-stakes Presidential delegation is a risky test-run for inter-agency cooperation between the Justice and Foreign Ministries on the Israeli side, and the White House, State Department and Secret Service on the U.S. side. Beyond logistics, the optics are better if a credible peacemaker (or peace-attempter) is on hand for Obama's visit -- especially since Netanyahu will not be greeting the President with any significant openings on the Palestinian front. Not now, not later.

February 19, 2013

Are we willing to see Bahrain step up?

It certainly has been painful and confusing to watch Bahrain again deal unevenly with internal political tensions under the spotlight of powerful and polarizing neighbors like Saudi Arabia and Iran. Now, it seems, Western opinion-shapers aren't much interested beyond the spectacle of clashes between demonstrators and government forces, and the mistreatment of opposition figures.

For all the media and political attention of two years ago, and even the most recent violence coming on the second anniversary, there has been scant coverage of the National Dialogue now underway. Of course, it would have been easier to advance this grievance-airing and consensus-building BEFORE the anniversary of the tragic crackdown, but there's still little excuse for ignoring it. 

It's always possible that wise diplomats and responsible journalists want to give space for the dialogue to proceed without the distraction of global visibility. But just weeks ago, Bahrain's Crown Prince raised the curtain for the National Dialogue before an audience of regional and international leaders, reporters, policy mavens, and even yours truly. This is no secret conversation, and reform-minded Bahrainis like Prince Salman seem to think publicity will help incentivize all Bahrainis -- including the ruling classes -- to give a chance to reconciliation and even to limited democracy. 

I assessed Washington's cautious role for Josh Rogin during last December's Manama Dialogue, "Since the last time we had this summit two years ago, Bahrain has been going through a difficult period. Bahrain has been assailed on Capitol Hill and elsewhere and perhaps rightly. But what has the U.S. government done to help Bahrain get through it? We've left it to other countries, we've left it to international organizations and NGOs. Maybe that's worked, but we can't take credit for that."

Why not help the Dialogue conveners help Bahrain, or at least put them on the spot? Perhaps the international community is wary of rewarding Bahrain with positive press before it's been redeemed by those inside and outside who oppose its ruling family. While our new Secretary of State is in the Gulf next week, he might take the opportunity to bolster those striving for a solution, even at the expense of angering fundamentalists in the region and absolutists back at home.

January 25, 2013

Denis McDonough rocks!

I had the privilege of working with Denis McDonough years ago on some community and human rights issues, when he was still a top aide to then-Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle. Denis was consistently friendly, helpful, no-nonsense, professional, smart, dedicated, faithful, and accessible. And he delivered, no matter how many other files were flying across his desk (though he'd usually be on his feet).

Denis delivered because he believed in our cause, and more importantly, because his boss did. Denis made sure that key points and deliverables were included in the trade measures moving through the Senate Finance Committee, where Senator Daschle also sat as a member. He also made sure that -- when the Senator was speaking before a high-profile gathering of community leaders -- he emphasized the concerns of vulnerable Jews overseas. That kind of plug from such a prominent politician made a much greater impact and boosted our cause as the communal priority it deserved to be.

Denis was always available to help, to sound out new ideas, and to keep us posted on what was coming down the pike. Since he's moved into the White House, I've only seen him speeding around a staircase landing, probably trying to cover three meetings and a hands-on President -- all AFTER "close of business". 

I really am proud, but not of Denis -- just proud of myself, that I have had an opportunity to deal with him directly, and that I live in a country where our government is being managed by people like Denis McDonough, President Obama's newly designated Chief of Staff.

January 17, 2013

Blogging about the actual "Jewish lobby"

Have I been naughty? I did not reveal any deep secrets, but my latest op-ed in the L.A. Jewish Journal connects the dots and points out what is obvious to most -- if not all -- of my colleagues in the Jewish community: "Yes, there is a Jewish lobby". My main points are outlined there, but here are a few additional thoughts...

It is Jewish because it was founded by Jews, and it's run by Jews, and there should be nothing wrong with that. For valid historical reasons, we prefer to call it "the pro-Israel lobby". It also makes for good branding, much as "women's rights" has evolved into more issue-based, mass-appeal movements like "pro-choice", "equal pay", "race for the cure", etc. And the LGBT community has the Human Rights Campaign. But while we prefer our branding be accepted universally and consistently, we cannot control the consumer.

Chuck Hagel made one reference to "the Jewish lobby", out of frustration with the pro-Israel movement's very effective and integrated fundraising/lobbying strategies. But that was not frustration with Israel, nor was it resentment of Jews per se. Once we organize and register, and walk the halls of Capitol Hill, we become fair game. We don't get special rights to anonymity just because we endured centuries of European persecution, or because we keep messaging that we're not there as "Jews" but as "pro-Israel activists". Of course we're there as Jews.

The Jewish Week posted an article this week, titled "Hagel Backed By Pro-Israel Leaders In Congress," and curiously all the "pro-Israel" leaders mentioned also happen to be prominent JEWISH leaders. And it's my guess, the reason these individuals are pro-Israel is that they strongly identify as Jews.

American Jews can take pride in supporting Israel as OUR issue, even as we invite others to join in for their own religious and personal reasons, and because we truly believe that supporting Israel is in America's best national interest. But if someone slips up and calls us "the Jewish lobby", better to remind them quietly of our long-term branding campaign and not make that the issue instead of Israel.

January 9, 2013

On Hagel, Jewish groups squandered an opportunity

Despite all the public kvetching about Israel and "the Jewish lobby" (by our own Jewish lobby), serious policymakers in Washington and around the world are far more interested in what Chuck Hagel's nomination for U.S. Secretary of Defense means for Iran than for Israel. Had American Jewish organizations figured this out, and/or had they cared, they would have joined the conversation about substantive next steps to end Iran's quest for nuclear weapons, which is about expert problem-solving rather than ideological litmus tests.

But no. Major and minor groups -- "mainstream" and outright Republican alike -- are tweeting and blogging their "pro-Israel" talking points, and Senators are being inundated by the same kinds of knee-jerk admonitions that used to make recovering Senators like Chuck Hagel and Joe Biden roll their eyes back on Capitol Hill. Despite this, a third former Senator, Barack Obama, has pushed forward to counter Iran and address its nuclear program in ways his predecessor could not. And still, our community seems incapable of acting like Obama's partner instead of his conscience.

When the Senate Armed Services Committee considers Hagel's nomination, I do NOT want to hear his views on why Israel is our most reliable ally in the Middle East, or anywhere. At the dawn of a new Congress and a second Obama term, this should be the opportunity to address major decision points on Iran (sanctions, force projection, counter-terrorism), Afghanistan, North Korea, and the fundamental budgeting and direction of our military infrastructure, preparedness, and personnel.

Israel's security will not be enhanced by becoming the centerpiece of confirmation hearings for a Cabinet post which by definition involves close cooperation with Israel's military establishment. Any distraction from the  strategic UNKNOWNS in the region and globally will undermine the stated goals of the Jewish advocacy organizations that are mobilized at this moment, whether to oppose Hagel outright or merely under the pretense of asking "the probing questions".

After Patriot missiles and Iron Dome, supporting Israel and U.S.-Israel relations ought not to be open for debate, yet major community organizations are inviting just such a re-examination through their expressions of "concern". Who cares whether Hagel would have been the "first choice" of any American Jewish leader? SHOULD we care, and if so, then why exactly?

Like most of the big decisions facing America at this time, this one should not be about Israel or Jewish organizations. Trying to make it that way diminishes our relevance as a community, for ourselves and to the world. Most importantly, it diverts attention from Israel's true needs and those of the United States.