Yuli Edelstein, Israel’s minister for Diaspora affairs, is here; he’s attending the National Prayer Breakfast today, along with President Obama. (The NPB, by the way, is one of the weirdest, most insular and most media-unfriendly Washington events to attract People With Actual Power — barring, perhaps, Christmas/Chanukah cocktails at the NSA — and is virtually uncoverable, except for the transcript of the president’s speech. An exception was a few years back when Bono — I swear this is true — attended and insisted that the confessional press, including yours truly, be in attendance. He laughed at my joke about brisket.)
In any case, Edelstein had what to say about what he says is a crisis over pluralism emerging between Israel and the Diaspora, when and how to deal with J Street, and the recent controversy over New Israel Fund backing for groups that reported on Israeli actions during last winter’s Gaza war. Edelstein spoke to reporters on Tuesday after meeting with Jewish leaders in New York, Philadelphia and Washington. Here are the excerpts; I’ll update later with reaction to the NIF comments and other commentary.
One of the topics that arose in New York, Philadelphia and Washington was the topic of the recent events in Israel, Jewish pluralism, if you will, including Women at the Wall and the buses [the segregated buses for the fervently Orthodox) and other topics.
I promised that on my return that I would raise these issues with the prime minister and the Cabinet secretary and we would think about the establishment of a team that would be in touch, officially in contact, with the leadership of the different movements and the federations to attempt to assess what can be solved, what can’t — but at least to create a dialogue. Because in my opinion, we are speaking two different languages. If I come to the Cabinet meeting on Sunday, as I will, and say "there’s a grave crisis here," no one will know what I’m talking about.
I think it’s worth making my Cabinet colleagues and Knesset members understand that there’s a sense of a problem in the dialogue. And if they believe like I do that the communities’ representatives, the activists in the communities are our cherished partners in everything connected to Hasbara and Israel’s image, we must not ignore what they say in our direction.
There was a sense of frustration (on the part of the Jewish leaders he met with), of many requests not answered, of a lack of an address, and of saying, "Finally we can speak to someone official from Israel," they turn to the embassy, to the people in Washington… Now they could speak with an official from Israel and spill these complaints.
I said honestly, that if they wrote another thousand requests or even if I raised it with the Cabinet on Sunday, that there would not be a solution pleasing everyone by next week. The issue is very complicated, but the fact that there is no immediate easy answer does not acquit us of seeking answers, and see what we can do and how.
The expression was, "We love and support Israel but it’s impossible to expect that we always be at your call without relating to these issues."
The New Israel Fund controversy:
This is a completely different topic, there are absolutely legitimate topics that Jewish officials raise, and there is a completely different topic that is very problematic, in my view, and one that we have been concerned with for a time, of a number of groups, under the guise of NGOs that are funded by foreign agents. I didn’t say hostile, or subversive or terrorist, but foreign agents, including foreign governments.
This matter has come to a head through a body called the New Israel Fund, and this body, as I have said and we all know, has a number of projects that are very beautiful, very welcome in the social sector, and I as a former minister of absorption can testify ran very desirable activities in various areas. But alongside these ran activities I would say are very problematic, some of the funding is not private, … funded by all sorts of foreign agents, foreign governments, but certainly, and I haven’t checked 100 percent the reliability of the research, but as far as I know, and the study is in my room, but as far as I know, most of the material submitted to Goldstone report was submitted by groups funded by NIF.
Now I’m not saying that in the wake of this to immediately, I don’t know, close the fund or put anyone on trial. But this requires a thorough investigation, I don’t think we’ll find many examples in democracies where these things exist like they do in Israel.
I didn’t meet with J Street people, I was asked a number of times about how to relate — if I would recommend — for example there was a story, yesterday, I spoke at the University of Pennsylvania, there was a big story about J Street, they want to do activism on campus, and they asked my opinion.
I would say that as a minister of Diaspora affairs, and as an official elected by the Israeli public and as a Jew and Israeli, someone in touch with all sorts of agents in the Diaspora, those I agree with and those I don’t. And when I speak to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in front of me is sitting Americans for Peace Now and American Friends of the Likud, and I very much hope they don’t agree with one another, because otherwise, I don’t understand why would they exist.
With this, there is a very simple rule, if you want to call yourself a lobby for the state of Israel you have to first of all to remember that that Israel is a democracy.
In 14 years in politics, I was in government, and then as deep in the opposition as you can get and then in government and then as deep in the opposition as you can get, everyone who wants to be a lobby for the state of Israel must check itself, are you capable of working with Shamir, Rabin, Netanyahu? In fact, Shamir, Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu, Barak, Sharon, you can go on.
And don’t misunderstand me, we are not a state of squares that scream at Jewish communities, "You have to support Israel right or wrong!" We don’t need to support wrong, we need to support right.
There’s a very simple rule, and I leave it with a question mark: If J Street says it is able to represent every government in Israel maybe they can be a lobby. If they can’t be a lobby, call themselves Young Liberal Jews for whatever, for Better Jewish Communal Life in the United States, and then we’ll speak with them.