The upcoming visit of President Barack Obama to Israel was the focus of much of the dialogue between Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren and Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, last weekend in Washington, D.C. At the Jewish Council for Public Affairs plenum, Oren expressed pride in the U.S. president, whom he said was one of only a smattering of U.S. presidents to travel to the Jewish state in their first or second terms.
“George Bush went in the last six months of his second term. This is Obama’s first trip in his second term and it should be a source of pride that he is [going there],” Oren said. “He is coming for a long time for a presidential visit – two days.”
Oren noted that many topics top the agenda, including Iranian nuclear proliferation, Egyptian stability, Syrian unrest and civil war and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. However, of most import, is the president’s desire to meet with the people of Israel, give them a chance to know and trust him.
“When Israelis meet Obama not just through the filter of the media, but come in contact with him, that will have an immediate and very positive effect on our relationship,” Oren said.
But the news of the event was an announcement that Obama will lay a wreath on the burial place of Theodore Herzl. This, said Oren, is wrought with meaning – a strong statement that Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and that the country is in the Middle East to stay.
“He will be sending a message about Jewish connectedness to the land,” said Oren.
In talking about Obama’s relationship with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who earlier this week signed a coalition government to secure his spot at prime minister, Oren turned to joking. He described their relationship as “open and candid.”
Oren came down on the left of center. He said he has “great frustrations” with the fact that a significant number of the people criticizing Israel – setting the tone for the boycott, sanctions and divestment movement – are American Jews. He said he believes Israeli is in a situation where it is looked at against different standards than the rest of the world.
“We have a standard for a democracy, a standard for a non-democracy, and a standard for Israel,” he said.
Oren noted that he was baffled to learn four years ago when he took up his post as ambassador after living in Israel for 25 years that support for Israel by the Jewish people was not a given. While he noted that the percentage of the American Jewish community that supports a sovereign Jewish state in the Middle East today is the “highest ever,” he said opinions about what that state should look like are many and diverse.
Additionally, he praised the Israeli government for being proactive about issues of pluralism in Israel that threaten to divide Israel from more liberal or non-Orthodox Jewish cohorts in the States, but he pushed that for the non-Orthodox to ask for change, they must first be united.
“One of my big points has been that before American Jews can come to Israel and say, ‘We want you to relate to us in this way or that,’ Americans have to learn to relate to each other,” he said, explaining Americans cannot expect the Israeli government to hear them until they themselves have a unified voice.
Finally, Oren talked about peace – or the lack thereof. In answer to questions from the audience, he made clear that Israel does not currently have a partner for peace. He said the world media likes to blame Israel and the settlements for a halting of the peace process, but on the ground, he knows that it is not on Israel’s side and not because of a balcony on a home in Judea or Samaria.
“The settlements are not the issue,” said Oren. “One of the most traumatic things I went through was the withdrawal from Gaza. We withdrew to get peace. We got thousands of rockets.”
Oren said he –and most Israelis – believe in a two-state solution, but the country cannot put itself into a situation that will start another war. He said people are quick to forget history and much of the territory comprising the settlements was secured for security reasons in addition to its Biblical significance to the people of Israel.
“We are willing to negotiate for a two-state solution, on two people and two states,” said Oren. “So far, there has not been an agreement on two people. No Palestinian leader has accepted Israel’s right to exist.”
Overview: At JCPA
A broad tent where all Jews have a voice on social issues and speak first and foremost about what binds them together rather than what separates them was the main message and focal point of discussions, workshops and speeches at the three-day Jewish Council for Public Affairs plenum last weekend, March 9 through 12.
Three hundred people representing 60 communities and organizations in the United States and Canada attended the annual policy conference in Washington, D.C., which was entitled “Tolerance is not enough! Israel, Civility, and Social Justice.” JCPA is an umbrella organization representing 15 national and 125 local partner agencies concerned with civic and social involvement.
Rabbi Steve Gutow, JCPA president, called for everyone to work “to keep our clan, our family together,” adding, “We will not be successful if the community is on fire.”
The conference covered a variety of other topics including gun control, protecting Jews who live abroad and are victims of anti-Semitism, the working poor, grassroots activism on global human rights, working with interfaith partners and energy security.
Two resolutions were adopted at the plenum. The organization voted to expand its support for gun control, agreeing to a comprehensive package that curtails access to some weapons, a waiting period before guns can be purchased, background checks, better mental health care and criminal justice reforms.
JCPA members also approved measures to strengthen and expand current civil rights laws aimed at preventing pay discrimination.
Also, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano addressed the group on the need for immigration reform, as well as continued intelligence sharing between the United States, Israel and the local Jewish community.
— Suzanne Pollak