Stepping to the podium, papers in hand, State Department “spokesman” Joshua Eizen took to the floor to explain to the Jewish gathering why the U.S. Embassy in Israel should not yet be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“Now is not the time,” he said. “To do it in the middle of the peace process is premature and, for lack of a better word, stupid,” he told the assembled delegates.
Maryland “Congressman” Ari Lipman countered, saying, “Israel is our strongest ally. We need to demonstrate the strength of that relationship in any way possible. That’s the main reason we believe the U.S. Embassy should be in Jerusalem.”
Then Israeli “official” Jason Salus chimed in.
“The timing is wrong,” he said. “If the embassy is moved now there will be no peace process, no (Prime Minister Yitzhak) Rabin; we will return to the intifada,” he said.
The exchange sounded like many Jewish meetings, with one exception: Eizen, 18; Lipman, 17; and Salus, 16, still have one year of high school as well as a stint at college to complete before they can ascent to leadership positions in government.
They were there of the 19 high school and college students in town this week for the Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values’ Advanced Seminar.
As part of the seminar, students took on the roles of members of the Israeli government, U.S. Congress, the State Department, American Jewish “hawks” and American Jewish “doves.”
At a mock plenum of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Committee, an umbrella organization, the students debated the timely and controversial question of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
They then switched gears, posing as NJCRAC members, to discuss the embassy issue and to come up with a consensus statement about Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole’s (R-Kan.) proposed legislation to begin construction on a new embassy in Jerusalem in 1996, before Israel and the Palestinians are scheduled to have concluded their negotiations in Jerusalem.
The students, ranging from juniors in high school to juniors in college, echoed many of the sentiments adult Jewish leaders and activists on all sides of the issue have expressed.
Although most Jewish support the objective of moving the embassy, some have argued that doing it too soon could endanger the Middle East peace process.
“As American Jews, we have to support Congress, because Israel needs to see American support,” said Yael Lerman, a 17-year-old California high school senior.
“Action is needed at this moment,” she said.
Jesse Strauss, who will be a freshman at George Washington University here in the fall, disagreed.
“The embassy should be moved sometime, but it’s not prudent now. It’s reactionary,” he said.
The peace process is “sick” because agitators and “hawks” are bringing up the issue too soon, he said.
Joshua Aronovich, 18, a high school senior from New Jersey, agreed.
Moving the embassy now is “playing into the hands of Hamas and right wingers who want to throw away the peace process,” he said, referring to the militant Islamic group.
When it came time to vote on the mock NJCRAC position, the students were as divided as the Jewish community at large.
Working from NJCRAC’s actual statement, the students voted 10 to 9 for an amended version that said NJCRAC members “cannot support the moving of the embassy at this time, but do insist it be moved as soon as the final status of Jerusalem has been solved.”
The official NJCRAC position was less direct. The organization, which is an umbrella of local community relations councils and national agencies, issues a statement last month saying the organization has always supported moving the embassy to Jerusalem and it supports the goal of the Dole legislation.
But NJCRAC said it does not want the issue to “become politically divisive” and it urged the Clinton administration and Congress to work together to bring the embassy to Jerusalem.
For their part, students said the debate got them thinking about the issue and exposed them to the inner workings of the Jewish community.
For Adam Shupack, a 17-year-old high school junior from Pennsylvania, the debate illustrated the split in the Jewish community over the issue.
“I learned how divided the Jewish community is an how hard it is to come up with a consensus,” he said.
California high school senior Matt Kirschen, who favors moving the embassy now, said he learned what the other side thinks.
“It was good for me, because I can see the issue from everyone’s side,” Kirschen said.
Still, he said, he didn’t change his beliefs.
“I can keep an open mind,” said the 17-year-old Kirschen. “But my mind says one thing and my heart says another.