It’s after Labor Day, which means kids are back to school, the football season has kicked off and the presidential race is heating up.
With much less fanfare, the Jewish diplomatic season is also under way. The three-day U.N. Millennium Summit last week presented American Jewish leaders with a unique opportunity: about 150 presidents, kings and prime ministers, gathered together to discuss the lofty goals of global peace, prosperity and an end to infectious diseases.
Meanwhile, on the sidelines of the summit, Jewish leaders scrambled to meet with dozens of these rulers. Regardless of the summit, this is typically peak season, with the United Nations set to resume its annual sessions.
Leading the way was the American Jewish Committee, followed by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Also networking were groups like the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress and the leading pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Why U.S. Jews want to meet with world leaders is clear and well known: The focal point of most of these meetings is Israel and how the Jewish state can foster stronger alliances around the world.
Why world leaders would want to meet with Jewish groups is more interesting, less publicized, and to some Jews, a bit discomfiting: These leaders believe in Jewish power.
In past years, such discussions between Jewish leaders and various heads of state centered on the Middle East peace process and soothing the hostile treatment toward Israel at the United Nations. Now, though, American Jewish leaders detect a shift in international opinion toward the Jewish state.
This shift, they say, is due to the fact that Israel is seen as making greater efforts in the peace process, has fully withdrawn from Lebanon, and now has more or less equal status at the United Nations. During the summer, Israel was finally accepted into the Western European grouping of the world body.
This year, the peace process was certainly a popular topic, as was how to apply international pressure on Iran to release 10 Iranian Jews the Jewish world believes were unjustly convicted in July on espionage charges.
In some cases, talks between American Jewish leaders and their counterpart across the table are a question of deepening relations with Israel. In other cases, there may be a state interested in establishing relations with Israel, but under pressure from other countries not to have formal ties. Such meetings are often confidential, said Jason Isaacson, the AJCommittee’s director of government and international affairs.
“There are instances where tentative feelers are being put out, where we can assist and be an important interlocutor,” Isaacson said.
“But if even the discussion of modalities can be highly controversial, it serves no good purpose to publicize those meetings. If our interest is to encourage a more formal relationship, the best way may be to act discreetly and diplomatically and not in the public view.”
In its publicized meetings, the AJCommittee met with, for example, President Ahmet Sezer of Turkey, which has a growing military alliance with Israel; President Abdurrahman Wahid of Indonesia, which is the largest Muslim country in the world; and President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, which is the economic and military powerhouse on the African continent.
The Presidents Conference met with Sezer as well, but also with less prominent states like the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. These meetings went beyond Israel and the fate of the local Jewish community; they also included discussion of global issues such as nuclear proliferation, international terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism.
It’s hard to imagine any other religious or ethnic community in America with as active or ambitious an agenda as U.S. Jews. This outward-looking worldview, say Jewish leaders, is rooted in Jewish history and the Jewish people having lived for thousands of years in the Diaspora.
“We are an internationalist community,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference.
“We have a much broader perspective, not bound by the borders of this country. Foreign affairs is not exactly a burning passion of most Americans. But we pursue it far more than others do.”
More interesting, perhaps, is why these foreign heads of state are willing – in many cases, in fact, eager – to meet with American Jewish leaders. Though they were generally in town for 24, 48 or 72 hours, with jam-packed itineraries, many made American Jewry a priority. One Jewish leader was even surprised when a foreign dignitary called and apologized profusely for having to cancel his planned meeting.
In fact, Jewish leaders nowadays receive mostly red-carpet treatment.
They have access to the corridors of power in most capitals around the world. A slew of foreign embassies in Washington have diplomats assigned to the “Jewish portfolio,” said Isaacson, from the Chinese and Japanese; to the Germans and Poles, to the Egyptians, Jordanians, Moroccans and Tunisians; to the Argentinians and Australians.
At Passover, they and others turn out in droves for diplomatic seders held in Washington and New York.
American Jewish leaders explain all this buttering up in euphemistic terms, suggesting that foreigners have a “fascination” with or “appreciation” for American Jews.
But when pressed, Jewish leaders admit the true driving force behind it is the lingering belief that Jews are capable of making or breaking relations with the United States and capable of wreaking havoc on the world’s financial markets.
This belief is derived from the century-old hoax, “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.” It is never articulated, say Jewish leaders, except for the rare gaffe by a less sophisticated diplomat. But the message is loud and clear when dignitary after dignitary says his country views the American Jewish community as a “central address” for improving relations with the world’s lone superpower.
Several Jewish leaders say they used to try to disabuse various rulers of their perception of “Jewish power,” in light of the misery this myth has caused Jews. To no avail. Then they realized how it could also work in their favor.
On the flip side, they admit that on occasion, a Jewish activist here or there is guilty of fanning this mythology to advance his own agenda. He’ll intimate to a stubborn head of state that the road to closer ties with Washington runs through American Jewry, presenting, in effect, an offer they cannot refuse.
“We don’t traffic in that fear or suspicion, or exaggerate our depiction of the community’s position,” Isaacson said.
But he added, “I’ve been around politics for 20 years, and I’ve come to realize that perception is reality. If there’s a perception of Jewish power, then that’s the reality and you have to deal with that reality. What we do is we judiciously and with great care make use of that reality for noble ends.”
Indeed, American Jews are viewed as vigilant and vocal, denouncing regimes that persecute Jews and other minorities, like Iran, and pressuring Congress, not always successfully, not to do business with rogue states. Likewise, Jewish groups praise leaders and states that respect human rights, and sometimes put in a good word for them on Capitol Hill.
In the case of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, the trio pins their hopes for the future on ties to the West, not with Russia. These countries seem to believe that chummy relations with American Jews and Israel will help secure a beachhead into the United States. So they wanted advice, and assistance, on how to boost their image in Washington, and urged foreign investment, Jewish and otherwise, said Hoenlein.
“We reach out to them,” he said, “and they reach out to us.”