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.