No Peace At The Plenum
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella organization representing 122 local Jewish community relations groups and 13 national organizations, took a baby step toward support for “charitable choice” legislation, turned its back on convicted spy Jonathan Pollard and Jewish day schools and marched in place on the Mideast peace process at this week’s annual plenum in Washington.
Veteran participants say the plenum featured less political discord than usual, more religious study — and a strong undercurrent of communal strife.
That broke into the open at a session led by Conservative Rabbi Harold Schulweis, the event’s scholar in residence, who spoke about Jewish reactions to the Holocaust and criticized what he said was the disabling anger among Orthodox and right-wing groups.
That outraged David Luchins, a top officer
of the Orthodox Union and a JCPA leader. “In the name of tolerance, he preached intolerance. In the name of pluralism he preached hatred. I was very pained by it,” he said.
JCPA staffers said Rabbi Schulweis was merely doing what he was brought in to do — stimulate debate.
“Candor on these matters is always problematic,” said Leonard Fein, director of the Commission on Social Action of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, a Reform group. “Rabbi Schulweis’ comments may have been on the edge, but this was not an attack on the Orthodox community in general.”
In a surprise move, delegates tabled a motion first proposed by the Orthodox Union, but co-sponsored by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and UAHC, calling for more active support for Jewish day schools.
Despite that unprecedented religious coalition, delegates chafed at the measure’s call for local organizations to take specific steps, including increasing federation allocations for Jewish education.
But OU officials expressed satisfaction that delegates improved a proposal supporting “charitable choice” legislation, which allows religious groups to participate more fully in providing government-funded services — with appropriate safeguards against church-state infringements.
Delegates also voted to table a resolution calling for support for the commutation of convicted Jonathan Pollard’s sentence.
Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the most conservative members of the Supreme Court, challenged the largely liberal crowd by defending his brand of judicial “originalism” and decrying what he said is the current trend toward a flexible interpretation of the Constitution.
“If you don’t use the original meaning of the Constitution as your criterion to decide a case, what do you use?” he asked. “You will find there is nothing to use except your own prejudices. For the ‘non-originalist,’ every day is a new day. You wake up and think ‘I wonder what is unconstitutional today?’ ”
In a question-and-answer session, Scalia got into a spirited exchange with Sammie Moshenberg, Washington director for the National Council of Jewish Women, over charges that the corps of Supreme Court clerks include few women or minorities.
Unlike recent plenums, this year’s JCPA gathering featured little Mideast controversy. An exception came on Monday morning when Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Martin Indyk got into a tussle with Lenny Ben-David, the second-in-command at the Israeli embassy, who disputed the administration’s claim that the Palestinians have been generally living up to their obligations under the Wye River agreement.
Ben-David said that while there have been some arrests by the Palestinian Authority, “there have also been releases of people who are known terrorists and murderers, and they were not released in consultation with us or with the Americans, as the accords called for.”
Indyk agreed that there had been no consultations — “that’s something we’ve talked to them about” — but insisted the PA had not released terrorists or murderers.
“We’ve got to be very careful about making those kinds of charges, unless we’re sure they’re correct,” he chided.
The chill in U.S.-Israel relations was even more evident in Indyk’s introductory remarks, which were largely a eulogy for the late King Hussein of Jordan.
A big-city Community Relations Council director said the message was clear. “Israel was almost an afterthought,” this source said.
“It was a little jarring to realize how far Israel has fallen in this administration’s graces.”
Indyk also expressed optimism about the possibility of resumed negotiations between Israel, Syria and Lebanon after the Israeli elections in May.
Ben-David — who used to work with Indyk when both were employed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — sounded a more skeptical note.
“We look across in Damascus and see a sphinx … named Assad,” he said. “Mr. Assad is to us very much an enigma.”
Plenum delegates passed a broadly worded resolution commending all participants in the peace process, supporting supplemental aid for Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians and urging the PA to “control incitement and violence within its areas of jurisdiction.”
Controversial language introduced by the Baltimore delegation referring to Palestinian rights in Jerusalem was removed before the vote.
There were hundreds of familiar faces at the JCPA plenum, but also a host of fresh ones: in what has become a yearly ritual, the hotel was swarming with college students, some 350 of them from 100 schools in 32 states.
The students were at the plenum as part of the Jack J. Spitzer B’nai B’rith Hillel Forum on Public Policy — possibly the longest-named program in Jewish communal life, but also one of the most vibrant.
Student leaders attended key JCPA sessions — about half the questions hurled at Justice Antonin Scalia came from the students — as well as extensive programming provided by Hillel.
Hillel used the plenum platform to announce its new “Tzedek Hillel” program.
Funded with a grant from the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the program “is designed to make Hillels the place on campus where students go to involve themselves seriously in social justice programs,” said Richard M. Joel, Hillel president and international director.
Local Hillel affiliates can apply for the Tzedek Hillel designation. Participating groups must submit detailed plans for activism in areas such as child welfare, hunger and homelessness and the environment. That makes them eligible for grants from Hillel.
The first four Tzedek Hillels include the Hillel of Greater Baltimore and the Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania; six additional campuses will be chosen in 1999.
“We’re not interested in generating a bourgeois-chic kind of activism — one day a year at a homeless shelter,” Joel said in an interview. “We want to create a more sustained commitment. We want to expand the horizons for serious Jewishness and its relation to community action.”
Today’s generation of college students, he said, aren’t interested in sweeping movements or great causes.
“It’s not the ‘60s revisited,” he said. “People want to know in concrete terms how they can make a difference in a Jewish context. There’s a concern about public policy, but people want to relate to it in a hands-on way. It’s a time when people see all policy as personal.”
Hitching on to the JCPA plenum, he said, “ is a way to reach out to students who might not otherwise think of themselves as being driven Jewishly. This is an attempt to give them the skills and language they need to return to their communities and be real agents of change.”
Is Senate Ready For Reconciliation?
Is Capitol Hill ready for reconciliation after the impeachment bloodbath? Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) think so. So does Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
The three arranged a “reconciliation gathering” for a Senate office building on Thursday.
“The goal is to build bridges after a very divisive time — between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, Christians and Jews,” Eckstein said in an interview.
Lieberman, the Senate’s only Orthodox Jew, is the longtime honorary co-chair of Eckstein’s outpost in Washington, the Center for Jewish and Christian Values. Brownback recently signed on as the other co-chair after the retirement of former Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.). Eckstein said the session — which he expects to attract a substantial majority of Senate members — will include prayer, reflections by the two senators and a handful of religious leaders representing Jews, Catholics, mainstream Protestants and Evangelicals.
“It’s been a very difficult time,” he said. “A lot of people think it’s time to take some steps toward reconciliation, and I think we can be part of it.”