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Darfur still on the brain at JCPA gathering

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Eric Holder, in his first speech as U.S. attorney general to a predominantly Jewish audience, told the Jewish Council for Public Affairs plenum in Washington on March 2, 2009 that the idea that protecting the nation from terrorism clashes with American ideals is "misguided." (Heidi Geldhauser)

Eric Holder, in his first speech as U.S. attorney general to a predominantly Jewish audience, told the Jewish Council for Public Affairs plenum in Washington on March 2, 2009 that the idea that protecting the nation from terrorism clashes with American ideals is “misguided.” (Heidi Geldhauser)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The economic crisis and other issues may have far surpassed it in the headlines, but the Jewish community still cares about the crisis in Darfur.

That was evident this week in Washington as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs passed a resolution at its annual plenum endorsing the option of U.S. military force in Sudan.

“I think it’s a statement about this community’s steadfastness,” said JCPA’s executive director, Rabbi Steve Gutow, noting that even though local Jewish communities have spent much time and effort on Darfur in the past few years, great concern remains about the genocide in the region.

The plenum serves as an annual barometer of where the organized Jewish community stands on a host of issues. Representatives of JCPA’s member organizations — the synagogue movements, several national groups and more than 100 local communities across North America — come together for the event.

The resolution, in addition to calling for intensified diplomatic efforts and the appointment of a senior full-time envoy to the Sudan, states that the U.S. government should "not exclude the option of military means if feasible, and in coalition with other countries, to protect the innocent civilians in Darfur and to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid." It passed overwhelmingly after an effort to strike the paragraph on the military option garnered little support.

Another resolution that achieved wide backing of public-policy advocates from more than 100 community relations councils and 14 national organizations encouraged local communities to pursue Jewish-Muslim dialogue on common concerns such as civil liberties issues and fighting racism and prejudice.

“Differences remain" among the two communities, the document says, but "they should not necessarily preclude efforts to dialogue."

Its advocates say the resolution will provide “guidance” to local communities. Jack Moline, a Conservative rabbi from Alexandria, Va., who helped craft the statement, says it simply says that “we should be treating Muslims like any other partner in dialogue.”

Some critics argued that the resolution did not provide enough guidance on controversial issues.

Holder: No clash between ideals, security

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder received a standing ovation before he started speaking on Monday morning.

“This is definitely my kind of audience,” he said in response.

The main theme of Holder’s 15-minute talk was that the conflict between fighting terrorism and protecting “our tradition of civil liberties” is not a “zero-sum battle.” Such an idea is not only “misguided,” he said, but “has done us more harm than good.”

After the speech Holder held an hourlong, off-the-record meeting with about a dozen top JCPA leaders on legal topics from torture to church-state issues.

"It was a deep, substantive discussion," said JCPA Washington director Hadar Susskind, adding that the attorney general saw the meeting as the "first step in building an open and engaged relationship with the Jewish community."

How big a tent?
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs Plenum’s Sunday discussion of "How Big a Tent for Pro-Israel Advocacy?" marked the debut of a new face inside the tent.

J Street, the 10-month-old group that has marketed itself as an alternative to what it believes are the more hawkish views of mainstream Jewish organizations, for the first time was invited to participate in a conference held by an established group. The invitation sparked a spirited but civil debate about how the Jewish community should discuss Israel.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s executive director, argued that the community should shun useless labels such as "pro-Israel" and instead have a vibrant discussion about what is best for the Jewish state — saying that "orthodoxy" of opinion on Israel was "dangerous" and "sowing the seeds of destruction" for the Jewish community.

The deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Kenneth Jacobson, responded that there was plenty of debate about Israel in the American Jewish community, but it happened in places such as the JCPA plenum and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The community has thought about the best way to be effective and have influence, Jacobson said, and the answer was to have a "consensus position" when it goes to Congress — an approach that has achieved “unbelievable success.”

There’s a "difference between the right to think as an individual and the responsibility of the community to present advocacy in a way that will have an impact,” the ADL official said.

Meanwhile, the third member of the panel, Endowment for Middle East Truth founder and director Sarah Stern, asserted that there was a "tremendous distinction between lobbying from the left and right” because those on the left were “encouraging risks.” Jacobson rejected that notion.

Stern and Jacobson argued that those who want to participate in the community’s debate about the Jewish state should at least be grounded in some minimal amount of education about Israel and the Jewish world.

Ben-Ami, though, said the community can only benefit from bringing more people into the discussion, saying that young Jews are turned off when they are given just one opinion on the conflict but will be engaged by more free-flowing debate.

The crowd of about 75 seemed to include supporters of both viewpoints, and Ben-Ami was pleased afterward by the debate his appearance had fostered.

"This is the kind of discussion we need to have," he said. "If college students saw this, they’d be thrilled."

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