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Focus on Issues As Jewish Groups Huddle, Quagmire


For weeks ahead of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs plenum, community leaders tiptoed around how to deal with growing Jewish opposition to the Iraq war: Mention it? Debate it? Pass a resolution addressing it?

“Fuggedaboutit” was more the attitude this week at the annual parliament that attempts to formulate Jewish community consensus on the issues of the day. Who has time to deal with Iraq when Iran is turning into such a headache?

Yet on the issue of Iran as well, consensus proved elusive.

Off the record, delegates said the JCPA’s failure to agree on an Iran policy underscores the American Jewish community’s nervousness about taking any militant posture in the Middle East given the quagmire Iraq has become.

The delegates from Jewish community relations councils across the United States and major Jewish organizations became mired in debate late into the night over whether Iran should even be on the agenda.

That left them little energy to deal with what had been a compromise formula for an open debate on the Iraq war. After the Iran discussion was resolved — by referring the issue to a committee — scarcely a dozen of the more than 400 delegates remained for the Iraq debate.

Other resolutions considered at the Feb. 25-27 plenum in Washington included:

A resolution encouraging financial support for Israelis displaced by last summer’s war with Hezbollah and targeted by Palestinian rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. A separate resolution sponsored by the Orthodox Union encouraged aid to settlers evacuated from the Gaza Strip in 2005 who are still living in tent cities. Both measures passed.

A resolution calling for targeted divestment from Sudan. It unsettled some delegates because of the Presbyterian Church’s 2004 resolution calling for divestment from certain companies doing business with Israel, a step rescinded in 2006. Supporters of Sudan divestment said it was clear that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians couldn’t be compared to the genocide being carried out in Darfur by militias allied with the Sudanese government. The resolution passed.

Resolutions also passed opposing criminalization of social-service provision to illegal immigrants; advocating limits on handgun sales; advocating decreased dependence on fossil fuels; opposing social-service funding cuts at the local and state levels, as well as some tax cuts; and opposing laws and constitutional amendments that deprived groups of civil liberties, an implicit rebuke to the anti-gay marriage movement.

The absence of Iran from the agenda led the Boston JCRC delegation to offer its own hastily drafted resolution to launch a “Stop Iran” movement.

Delegates wondered aloud why the threat from a government that talks of destroying Israel, backs terrorists, denies the Holocaust and appears to be rushing pell-mell to build a nuclear bomb was a no-show when it came to forming policy. Iran did feature prominently at several informational sessions during the conference.

Nancy Kaufman, the Boston JCRC’s director, noted that the resolution on the Sudan genocide had made it through the arduous pre-screening process, where resolutions are reviewed by staff and the JCPA executive. Iran’s posture toward Israel and the West is “not yet a genocide,” Kaufman said, but “it poses a clear and present danger” of becoming one.

JCPA officials initially responded that the umbrella body already had a position on Iran’s nuclear threat. Last passed in 2005, it calls for placing a high priority on stopping Iran’s nuclear program.

But that didn’t satisfy delegates. The Boston JCRC proposal called for Jewish and non-Jewish groups to form a “Stop Iran” coalition that would launch political, economic and educational initiatives against the Iranian nuclear threat, including a mass demonstration in Washington and a divestment campaign.

Martin Raffel, director of the JCPA’s Task Force on Israel and Other International Concerns, noted that the umbrella body’s Iran policy was evolving. He cited an effort to consolidate a national strategy outlined in a Jan. 30 memo to JCRC professionals and the JCPA executive.

Components of that strategy, according to the memo, would include building coalitions with non-Jewish groups, lobbying, media advocacy and American Jewish pressure on foreign governments and businesses that deal with Iran.

Once Raffel outlined the memo, the plenum voted overwhelmingly — with only the Boston delegation opposed — to refer the Boston resolution to Raffel’s task force.

“We will deal with that issue expeditiously,” Raffel said. “That includes divestment.”

It was clear that elements of the Boston proposal, particularly its call for major public actions like the mass demonstration, worried other delegates.

“Precisely because it’s so serious, we need sufficient time to deal with the messaging,” Rabbi Doug Kahn of the San Francisco JCRC said in explaining why he wanted the resolution deferred.

Speaking off the record, delegates said the aftermath of the Iraq war had profoundly unnerved them and made them wary of U.S. Jewish involvement in calls to militancy — especially with polemicists like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt spreading the myth that the pro-Israel lobby was behind the Iraq war.

Earlier in the day, the other signature Iraq war session also turned out to be more about Iran. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who is considering a presidential run and his party’s most strident critic of Bush administration policy in Iraq, switched topics: Instead of critiquing Iraq policy, he wanted to outline his concerns about Bush’s posture toward Iran.

Hagel said Bush’s policy of not engaging Iran until it comes clean on its nuclear program was not adequate.

“By refusing to engage with Iran, we are perpetuating dangerous geopolitical unpredictabilities,” he said. “Our refusal to recognize Iran’s influence does not decrease its influence but increases it.”

He added, “We must be clear that the United States does not seek regime change in Iran.”

Such talk is in clear contradiction to policies promoted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the lobbying powerhouse, which backs Bush’s tough posture and advocates only the narrowest engagement with Iran.

Yet Hagel’s reception at a signature Jewish event was warm. The sound system failed as he was completing his speech, so he wandered into the audience to take questions. Delegates rushed him with compliments, softball questions and outstretched hands.

By contrast, delegates wandered out during the address by the next speaker, Barbara Stevenson, a senior State Department official who deals with Iraq. Questions afterward focused on the financial costs of the Iraq war.

The behavior was consistent with a religious community that leads all others in opposition to the Iraq war. According to an analysis of 13 recent Gallup polls, 77 percent of American Jews think the war was a mistake.

Yet it also could mean that the Jewish community won’t be able to present a united front on Iran. Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.), who is Jewish, returned Tuesday from Iraq and sought to explain to reporters why he was now sorry that he voted to authorize the war — and why he was wary of a similar confrontation with Iran.

“We don’t need to go to Iran with any particular carrots or as supplicants,” Rothman said. “One negotiates conflict resolution with one’s potential enemies.”

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