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Policy Group Seeks Consensus on Katrina, Steers Clear of Iraq

March 2, 2006
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A defining moment at this week’s gathering of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an organization that seeks consensus on Jewish policy, came during a fierce debate on the Iraq war. It was defining because the organizers had already decided they would not formally debate Jewish policy on the war.

The decision to debate the Iraq war — but not vote on it — was typical of a three-day plenum that saw disagreements over how to deal with topics as diverse as how to deal with a Hamas-ruled Palestinian Authority, reform at the United Nations and the devastation wrought in the wake of last year’s hurricane season.

The exception was a resolution on the massacres in Darfur that reiterated the JCPA’s 2005 appeal “for the mobilization of both the Jewish and world community to end the genocide in the Sudan.”

The JCPA is one of the principal organizers of a mass Washington rally on Darfur scheduled for April 30.

The JCPA, the umbrella body for the nation’s Jewish community relations councils and about a dozen national Jewish groups that span the religious and political spectrum, creates policy by consensus. It’s a process that many participants themselves privately call frustrating because it is difficult to achieve consensus from such a diverse range of people and organizations.

That frustration typically bubbles to the surface during the annual gatherings, and this year was no exception.

Rabbi Israel Zoberman, from Virginia Beach, Va., chided the JCPA for even raising the Iraq issue at the conference, which began Sunday night and ended on Tuesday. The Iraq discussion came at a session that, unlike most of the plenum’s sessions, was not tied to any of the resolutions up for debate.

“This is the wrong issue for our great movement and the American Jewish community,” said Zoberman, a Reform rabbi in an area with a high concentration of servicemen and women.

In contrast, Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said he and his movement advocated markers that would signal an end to the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, but whatever one believed, it was essential for Jews to debate the issue.

“What we can no longer afford to do is to walk away from the tough task of grappling with this war,” said Saperstein, whose movement last summer approved a resolution to set such boundaries on the war. Saperstein spoke on a panel with Lawrence Kaplan, a New Republic writer who had taken issue in the magazine with the movement’s stance.

The Iraq session was a bone for those who were unable to bring the issue formally to the JCPA’s resolution session Monday night, on the eve of a day of Capitol Hill lobbying by the 400 activists from around the country attending the conference.

Getting a resolution past the relevant task force to the resolutions committee and through to the final session is arduous, and this year only 10 made it.

One of the primary criterion guiding the process is to achieve consensus, so anything too controversial is not likely to get to the full plenum, say participants in the system.

All 10 resolutions prepared for the plenum passed, but still engendered enough debate to suggest that even on issues as whitebread as isolating Hamas or supporting federal funds to rebuild the coastal regions after this past devastating hurricane season, there was some disagreement.

Some delegates objected to the resolution recommending a cutoff in any U.S. relations with a Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority because the United States has yet to finalize its policy pending a Hamas takeover. The terrorist group won a landslide victory in the Jan. 25 Palestinian legislative elections, but has yet to work out a power-sharing agreement with President Mahmoud Abbas, a relative moderate.

The objections were overruled, and the resolution urging the United States against “dealing with or providing assistance to a P.A. that is run by Hamas representatives or whose policies are guided by Hamas” passed the JCPA plenum.

Still, that fell short of policy to be touted next week by the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, at it policy conference, that would pin tougher-than-ever requirements on any assistance to the Palestinian Authority, regardless of whether Hamas is in control, and would extend the requirements to the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is still under Abbas’ control.

Some of the JCPA member organizations had made it clear during the drafting process that they would be unable to endorse AIPAC’s far-reaching restrictions.

In fact, the Reform movement, one of the JCPA’s largest constituent groups, joined an interfaith appeal on Tuesday to the Bush administration to pursue a “careful” policy in the wake of the Hamas victory. In a letter to Bush, the group supported the administration “not acting precipitously to cut off aid to the Palestinian people.”

Some JCPA delegates were also clearly influenced by a session featuring Mara Rudman, a Clinton-era deputy national security adviser. AIPAC’s recommendations “involve a sledgehammer when what is needed is a scalpel,” said Rudman, who was one of several American Jewish monitors of the Palestinian elections.

Some disagreements derived from regional biases. The Louisiana delegation wanted to single out federal agencies in critiquing government performance in the wake of the hurricanes, but that was rejected as overly partisan.

Still, the resolutions on Katrina passed overwhelmingly, illustrating the JCPA’s long-standing focus on poverty issues.

In his first opening address to JCPA as its new executive director, Steve Gutow highlighted that issue, saying: “We will fight to alleviate the poverty that permit hurricanes like Katrina and Rita to do so much more damage than they possibly could if people did not live in such tragic economic straits.”

Others linked the consensus position on poverty to the more divisive issue of the Iraq war.

Speaking of the war, Mahnaz Harrison, the chairwoman of the Pittsburgh United Jewish Federation’s Community and Public Affairs Council, asked: “Can we forget about the economic cost to Americans when we are looking at social services being cut?”

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