AIPAC Plans to Battle Iran as Conference Begins

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN DEFENDS THE IRAN NUCLEAR AGREEMENT AT THE AIPAC POLICY CONFERENCE. PHOTO BY MELISSA GERR.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN DEFENDS THE IRAN NUCLEAR AGREEMENT AT THE AIPAC POLICY CONFERENCE. PHOTO BY MELISSA GERR.

Vice president Joe Biden on Sunday night addressed an AIPAC policy conference that was divided on the extent of the strength of the Obama administration’s support for Israel.

Speaking at the Verizon Center to the pro-Israel lobby’s annual gathering, Biden quoted Irish writer James Joyce and poet William Butler Yeats, as well as Zionist father Theodor Herzl, as he outlined an optimistic view of the Middle East.

Because of the nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, “Iran is much, much further away from obtaining a nuclear weapon than they were a year ago,” he said. As of today, more than two-thirds of Iran’s centrifuges have been removed. More than 98 percent of the stockpiles … have been shipped out of the country. And the core of the reactor and … has been filled with cement. And unprecedented inspections are happening.”

He gave three reasons for being optimistic about trends in the Middle East. First, all parties are in agreement that Iran’s activities are destabilizing for the entire region. Second, Arab nations understand how radicalization presents a threat to their own security. And third, Israel is emerging as a regional powerhouse.

“Israel is stronger and more secure today because of the Obama/Biden administration. Period,” the vice president declared, drawing boos from the audience.

He said the new defense memorandum of understanding being negotiated by Israel and the United States “will without a doubt be the most generous assistance package in the history of the United States. And I’m hopeful that we can work out all the details. … As I told Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and President [Reuven] Rivlin, Israel may not get everything it asks for, but it will get everything it needs. First, Israel’s security is about more than military needs … it means making sure that Israel will always exist.”

When he warned that Israel’s settlement activities are moving the situation in Israel and the Palestinians “to a one state reality, a reality which is dangerous,” he drew applause from one side of the Verizon Center and booing and screaming from the other.

Biden expressed hope that his audience was as happy as he that Iran was farther from a nuclear threshold than it had been a year ago. But speaking just before Biden’s appearance, AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr described just unhappy the organization was.

AIPAC lost a fight with the Obama administration last year when the Senate approved the agreement with Iran to halt its nuclear weapons program. On Sunday night, Kohr announced that Iran was again the group’s top issue.

“The struggle to prevent a nuclear armed Iran and to deter Iranian aggression in the Middle East is far from over,” he told thousands of Israel supporters at the Verizon Center. “So let us be clear. Iran remains the greatest threat to America in the middle East and to Israel’s ultimate survival,” he said to a round of applause.  “Its nuclear program is not dismantled, it’s in delay. And that’s even if Iran abides by the deal.”

Kohr said negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians leading to a two-state solution was AIPAC’s number-two priority. Third was increased American support for Israel’s military strength.

But even Sunday morning, it was clear that Iran was high on AIPAC’s agenda, as speakers warned about what they said were the consequences of a flawed nuclear agreement.

“The Iranians will mostly abide by the deal,” said Emanuele Ottoleghi, a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, in two sessions called “Nearing Implementation Day” and “After Implementation Day.”

Iran is motivated to adhere to the 15-year agreement because in the eighth year, the United States will lift its restrictions on Iranians studying nuclear physics here. “By the time the deal expires, Iran will have a legion of U.S. trained nuclear scientists,” who will greatly enrich Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon.

Ottoleghi said it is futile to hope that the United States and its allies can re-impose sanctions on Iran. “It took a years for Iran to feel the bite of sanctions. In 15 years Iran will be able to break out in weeks.”

In another session on the Iran nuclear deal, Omri Ceren, managing director for press and strategy for The Israel Project, reached the same conclusion as Ottoleghi.

If attempts to deprive Iran of a nuclear weapon fails, “the United States will have to have a military response,”Ceren said.

Over lunch, the talk was less about Iran and more about the appearances on Monday of the presidential candidates.

“That’s what really got me excited,” said Michael Goller from Cincinnati, a Donald Trump supporter.

Ross Mellman, of Boca Raton, Fla., said he was looking forward to what the candidates have to say. He disapproves of plans to boycott or protest Trump’s appearance.

“All candidates are here to speak and should be heard,” he said. “Some of the people here are missing that message. It’s just common courtesy.”

“Probably a high amount of people want to hear about what Trump says about Israel,” said Ava Fagin of New York.

“He’s the guy people want to hear from,” said Mark Zucker, of Chicago. “The protests are the side story. The important thing is: what are his views, because he’s one of the two major candidates.”

Eliana Elikan, 15, from Silver Spring, said she was disappointed that Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was the only presidential hopeful not speaking at the conference. She likes Sanders, but she said he lost her support because he reportedly sought advice from the liberal J Street, which she criticized as “more non-interventionist.”

“I am a big supporter of Israel,” she said. “It is my number one issue.”

Daniel Schere and Joshua Runyan contributed to this article.

To Understand American Jews Who Support Trump, Read This

Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump signs autographs at a campaign rally in Concord, N.C. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump signs autographs at a campaign rally in Concord, N.C. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — America’s  political system is broken, and the last thing the country needs is another career politician at the helm.

With money more than ever a corrupting influence in politics, the White House should be occupied by someone who isn’t beholden to well-funded lobbyists or super PACs.

Politicians have a real problem with honesty. The country needs someone authentic who isn’t afraid to speak the truth and disrupt convention, even if it’s not politically correct.

If you’re planning to vote for Donald Trump for president, you’ve probably argued one or more of these points.

Trump’s electoral success may be bewildering to many American Jews, the vast majority of whom vote reliably Democratic, and alarming to those disturbed by his delay in disavowing the support of white supremacist David Duke, the bullying at Trump rallies and his specific positions (or lack thereof) on a range of issues.

But Trump’s Jewish supporters see the candidate as  refreshingly honest, unafraid to challenge political orthodoxies (including conservative ones) and successful in business — which, they say, is just the sort of experience a president needs. They also believe he’ll be good for Israel, not least because, they say, he’s a savvy negotiator who knows enough not  to publicly take sides in the  Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“People are bent out of shape because he won’t take sides. I’m a negotiator myself; that’s how you do things,” said Gedalia Shaps, 49, an entrepreneur and self-described modern Orthodox liberal Jew from New York’s Long Island. “But I believe he truly has  Israel’s best interests at heart. He says Israel is going to love him, and I believe that.”

Like many other Jewish supporters of Trump, Shaps noted that Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, is an Orthodox Jew (she converted before she  married husband Jared Kushner).

While Trump’s opponents see him as a demagogue and vulgar blowhard who would lead the country to disaster, his supporters minimize his bullying, believe his lack of  detailed policy prescriptions is a sign that pragmatism would trump ideology in a Trump presidency, and are generally willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt.

“I think he’s honest. Obviously he has a good business background,” said Marc Rauch, 64, a film producer in Los Angeles who is originally from Brooklyn. “He’s not a politician, so  I think a lot of stuff he’s  responding to on the fly. He hasn’t spent 20 years running for office. We need real leaders, not professional politicians.

“Trump is somebody who has real experience. What I don’t want is another guy who has done nothing in his life other than run for public office.”

For many Jewish Trump supporters, as for many Americans who back him, Trump’s main appeal is they believe he has the best shot at defeating Hillary Clinton in the general election in November.

“This is to me more about who I don’t like than who I like,” said Lawrence Stern, 69, an attorney in Los Angeles. “I have been a lifelong registered Democrat. However, in the last few federal elections I have seen the Democratic Party move away from what I believe were its roots and its core foundation to a closer relationship to those who are both anti-Semitic and anti-Israel.”

Stern said he’s voting against Clinton because of her support for the Iran nuclear deal, her infamous 1999 embrace of Yasser Arafat’s wife, Suha, and the support given to the Clinton Foundation from Arab donors.

Some of the political sentiments driving Jewish support for Trump echo widely held views among Americans of all political stripes. They are fed up with the political gridlock and dysfunction in Washington. They decry the corrupting influence of money in politics. They don’t trust politicians.

Indeed, widespread exasperation with the ways of Washington helps explain both major surprises of the 2016 presidential campaign: the rise of Sen. Bernie Sanders on the left and Trump on the right. In each candidate, supporters see a great hope for major political change.

“He’s not without flaws,” Sheldon Wolf, 53, the CEO of a computer software company in Tampa, Florida, said of Trump. “But I look at what he can bring to the table. People are so upset about our do-nothing Congress. If there’s one guy who can possibly bring these people together and work  together, it’s Trump. It’s sure not Bernie Sanders, and it’s sure not Ted Cruz.”

Asked about Trump’s delay in disavowing Duke, or the  remarks some found offensive at last fall’s Republican Jewish Coalition conference in Washington, D.C., when Trump seemed to invoke classic stereotypes about Jews and money, Trump’s Jewish supporters say they don’t believe he’s a white supremacist or a bigot. Many noted his longstanding support for Israel, including his 2004 role as the grand marshal of the annual Salute to Israel Parade in New York.

“Some of his behavior raises questions, but I’m ready for that risk because the other  Republicans I find horrible,” said Dr. Ben Enav, 44, a pediatric gastroenterologist from the Washington suburbs of northern Virginia.

“He definitely says some things I am not always comfortable with when it comes to race or sexism,” Enav said. “But I always wondered: How does someone have such a big organization and he has never been accused of bigotry or sexism? I think some of his rhetoric is showboating and I think some of it is reality. He is willing to say what a lot of people are thinking.”

There appear to be some  inherent contradictions in the qualities many of Trump’s  Jewish supporters say they like about him. They see his brash and sometimes crude persona as authentic, but believe he’ll  behave differently as president. They admire his business successes but disregard or  explain away his business failures. They acknowledge his big ego but say Trump understands that being president is more about assembling the right team of advisers than about the man himself.

In short, his supporters project onto Trump the positive things they want in a president and downplay the negative signs Trump opponents find so alarming.

“People say he’s failed so many times — well, you learn from failure. You’re not going to succeed unless you fail many times,” said Lisa, a 32-year-old Jewish voter from Los Angeles who asked that her last name not be published. “I think a lot of his brash statements that people bag on him for are because you have to get a political conversation started. I don’t think he’d necessarily  act that way in a presidential meeting. The person you see on TV is actually very different than how he’d be as president.”

In fact, many Jewish Trump supporters see him as a relative moderate, someone guided more by reason than by ideology.

“Compared to the other  Republicans, on certain issues he’s probably the most liberal out of all of them,” said Orna Enav, 45, an Israeli immigrant and Ben Enav’s wife. “On social issues like gay marriage or abortion, which he’s not vocal about, I believe he’s probably more liberal than anybody else.”

She added, “I can understand why some people in the Republican Party don’t want him.”

Leaders of Jewish Right and left face off in revealing Las Vegas debate

Matt Brooks, left, and Jeremy Ben-Ami (Getty Images via JTA)

Matt Brooks, left, and Jeremy Ben-Ami (Getty Images via JTA)

A common debate tactic is to try to get your opponent to express his most extreme views — revealing what I call the “crazy aunt in the attic.”

This tactic isn’t as useful in the presidential primaries, which are more focused on being “holier than the pope” when it comes to party orthodoxy. But the Republican and Democratic nominees, whoever they turn out to be, will certainly seek out each other’s crazy aunts in the general election debates.

If they’re looking to brush up on how it’s done, they would do well to take notes on Wednesday night’s debate at a Las Vegas synagogue between the Republican Jewish Coalition’s Matt Brooks and J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami. Each managed to reveal a crazy aunt of the other, and in some cases  to get him to publicly dance with her.

The RJC and J Street have gunned for each other almost since Ben-Ami founded his liberal Israel advocacy group in 2008; he’s now the president. But Wednesday was the first time the Jewish leaders have faced off, and both brought their A game.

The first crazy aunt of the night was introduced by Brooks, the RJC’s executive  director. Jon Ralston, the doyen of Nevada political  reporters who was moderating, asked Brooks if he agreed with the notion peddled by billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a major RJC founder, that the Palestinians are an “invented people.”

Brooks started out by saying Adelson doesn’t “hurt” the prospects for peace by promoting his view, but then went ahead and bear-hugged the position, saying, “Up until 1948, there never was a Palestinian people.”

In fact, the Palestinians were defining themselves as such for at least decades before 1948. Realizing that Brooks had cracked the attic door, Ben-Ami pushed.

“So Matt, who were the people who lived in the land of Palestine when it was called Palestine?”

Brooks said, “Arabs,” and Ben Ami flung the attic door open.

“So we’ll agree they’re Arabs, they’re not an invented people, they lived in Palestine when my great-grandparents arrived in the first year of the First Aliyah,” he said.

Later, Brooks tried to get Ben-Ami to own relationships with anti-Israel groups like Students for Justice in Palestine. Ben-Ami answered that  J Street does not coordinate with such groups on policy, and that what Brooks was citing were instances where  J Street agreed to debate SJP and others like it in an effort to counter anti-Israel activism on campus.

“Believe, me we are at the top of the list of groups SJP does not like in the world,” Ben-Ami said.

When Ralston stepped in and asked Brooks whether he thought it was OK to block anti-Israel groups from campuses, Brooks said yes, “shut them down,” and the First Amendment “only goes so far.”

“What are your limits on the First Amendment?” Ben-Ami interjected.

Ralston looked shocked.

There is a deep-rooted tradition among Jews of putting non-believers in herem, banishing them, never engaging with them. But banishment only makes sense in the Old World context of the Jewish quest for survival against all odds. In a free society, where the prevailing belief about  extreme beliefs is that the best way to stop them is to expose them to the marketplace of ideas, shutting down speech becomes a crazy aunt.

Ben-Ami’s crazy aunt moment came in direct response to Brooks. After a couple of aborted probes (Sorry, Ben-Ami was never going to praise Neville Chamberlain), Brooks found what he was looking for.

“Who is the only prime minister in Israel to have done a settlement freeze?” Brooks asked.

Ben-Ami hemmed and hawed, allowing Brooks to answer the question himself. “Prime Minister Netanyahu,” Brooks said, correctly noting that the prime minister had paid a political price for deferring to President Barack Obama on the matter.

Ben-Ami went on to dismiss the freeze as inadequate, which is beside the point Brooks was making: Netanyahu, at least in one respect, has gone farther than any other Israeli leader in trying to get the Palestinians to the negotiating table.

The smart reply for Ben-Ami would have been to immediately give Netanyahu credit for the freeze before following up with the “but he could have done more” megillah.

Ben-Ami’s inability to praise Netanyahu exposed a crazy aunt hiding in many Jewish leftist attics: A visceral dislike for Netanyahu that is shocking to the Jewish mainstream.  Although Netanyahu has real differences with the left on the status of the West Bank, he  really was the only prime minister to freeze settlement — and he’s Israel’s elected leader.

Ben-Ami tried to make Donald Trump another crazy aunt for Brooks. I’m not sure he succeeded, because while Brooks didn’t directly say the RJC wouldn’t back the Republican presidential front-runner, he was able to note that the group had in the past  repudiated less than savory  Republicans, like Pat Buchanan.

That led to my favorite moment — the crazy billionaire aunt dance party — a supremely weird moment in an otherwise substantive and engaging debate. Ralston asked each leader about his major funders.

“You have your billionaires, we have our billionaire,” Ben-Ami said, acknowledging the support of George Soros, the hedge fund philanthropist  and major Democratic funder who has become a bogeyman for the right.

“I would take my billionaire over your billionaire any day,” Brooks said, acknowledging his Adelson connection and earning applause with the hometown crowd.

“The billionaire you’re stuck with is Donald Trump, and you’re going to earn your salary all year long defending Donald Trump,” Ben Ami said, and then added, “I would take my billionaire over your billionaire any day.”

Retorted Brooks: “I would take my billionaire — and his wife — over your billionaire any day.”

Ralston, thankfully, stepped in before Ben-Ami and Brooks were able to invoke extended families.

In Flint Crisis, Jews Pitching In with Corned Beef, Dr. Brown’s — and Water

Volunteers loading cases of free water into waiting vehicles at a water distribution center in Flint, Mich., this month. (Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images)

Volunteers loading cases of free water into waiting vehicles at a water distribution center in Flint, Mich., this month.
(Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images)

FLINT, Mich. — At 86, Jeanne Aaronson is blind and lives alone, but she has seen a lot over the years.

She lived in Flint when it was a manufacturing powerhouse, a center of the automotive business and a symbol of American industrial might and ingenuity. She lived through the city’s decline in the 1970s and ’80s as the auto factories closed and the population decamped for better opportunities elsewhere. And more recently, she witnessed the beginning of its revival, with the opening of new businesses and a slew of brewpubs and coffee shops on Saginaw Street.

Now Aaronson is living through yet another difficult period in Flint history, as the city copes with toxic levels of lead in its drinking water that has made Flint a national example of failed governance. Like all the residents here, Aaronson is surviving on bottled water, which she must even feed to her elderly dog.

“Am I ticked? You bet I’m ticked,” Aaronson said. “I’m ticked at the stupidity of our governor for appointing that emergency manager who decided to save a few bucks by poisoning us. Just stupid. I’m ticked at everyone from the very top to the very bottom. Except our new mayor. Mayor Weaver’s doing a good job. But otherwise, I have no faith. None at all.”

Flint has been facing a public health emergency since April 2014, when the city, under the direction of a state-appointed emergency financial manager, began to use the Flint River as its water source. The city used to get its water from Detroit’s water system, which relied on Lake Huron and the Detroit River as water sources. After the switch, the state chose not to use phosphates as an anti-corrosion agent, which caused lead to leach from old pipes into the drinking water.

The crisis was featured prominently in a recent Democratic presidential debate, with both candidates addressing the water situation in the opening minutes. Clinton described meeting mothers terrified for their children. Sanders spoke of his broken heart at hearing of a child now developmentally delayed as a result of lead poisoning.

“Whether this happened because of sins of omission or sins of commission doesn’t matter,” said Steve Low, the director of the Flint Jewish Federation, which has been helping deliver bottled water to local residents. “It doesn’t make the poisoning of Flint’s water supply any less heinous.”

Aaronson’s is one of only 66 identified Jewish households left in Flint, a city of 100,000 people 60 miles northwest of Detroit. About 200 more Jewish families live in the Flint area but outside the city limits, where the water hasn’t been affected.

Like Aaronson, many Jews in Flint are elderly, and they’ve been particularly battered by the crisis. For some with arthritic hands, merely opening the bottled water that is now an essential commodity here can be a challenge. Others have had difficulty getting assistance because they don’t have Internet access or are hesitant about opening their door to strangers in a high-crime city.

“For me, this is one giant pain. And yes, I am plenty angry. But I can take care of myself,” said Sue Ellen Hange, 61, a member of Flint’s Temple Beth El who got skin rashes from showering in the contaminated water. “I can’t imagine what it’d be like to be homebound and dealing with this.”

The Flint Jewish community has responded with support both moral and material. To ease the fears of the city’s older Jews, familiar faces from the federation’s senior services division often accompany the water delivery. Two of Flint’s synagogues have held informational meetings and offered special prayers for healing. Synagogue social action committees have also reached out to local residents to remind them they’re not alone.

Support has also come from further afield. The Metro Detroit Federation made a cash contribution of an undisclosed sum to the community. Several Detroit-area congregations joined forces and made the trek 60 miles north with a truck full of water. The Yad Ezra Food Pantry, a group of Detroit-area Chabad houses and the Jewish Federation in Toledo, Ohio, also made water donations.

From Indianapolis, Shapiro’s Deli sent a complete Shabbat meal for 150 in January, including corned beef, pastrami, knishes, chicken soup with matzah balls and even Dr. Brown’s soda. The Jewish relief effort even reached as far as California, where San Francisco chocolatier and Flint native Chuck Siegel sent over an array of sweets and beloved Flint nostalgia foods like Vernors ginger ale and Koegel’s hot dogs. In Los Angeles, Flint native and Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman helped stage the Hollywood Helps Flint fundraiser on Feb. 21, which has so far raised $33,000 for the city.

“We may have left Flint,” Bragman said at the fundraiser, “but Flint never left us.”

Steve Low, center, the director of the Flint Jewish Federation, takes a delivery of food from a kosher deli in Indianapolis. (Flint Jewish Federation)

Steve Low, center, the director of the Flint Jewish Federation, takes a delivery of food from a kosher deli in Indianapolis.
(Flint Jewish Federation)

The crisis comes at a particularly unfortunate moment for Flint. After decades of mounting poverty and crime, the city had recently begun to rebound. Businesses as varied as a small maker of hip eyeglass frames to corporate giants had set up shop in the city. Renovated dowager buildings downtown are now trendy loft apartments. The Michigan State University Medical School opened a new campus downtown, and Kettering University and the University of Michigan-Flint both dramatically expanded their footprints in the city.

“If it’s possible to see the good in this,” Low said, “it’s that the water crisis threw a big net over the community and has drawn us together. Going back to the 1950s, Flint’s Jews and the African-American community have always worked together. Lately, not so much. But the water has rekindled some of those passions we both share for social justice.”

The crisis has also drawn the Jewish and Hispanic communities together. At a recent meeting at Flint’s Temple Beth El, congregant Melba Lewis pointed out that many local Hispanics are undocumented and are loath to open their doors to uniformed officers to distribute water. The synagogue wound up partnering with a large Hispanic church to distribute a pallet of water to the church for distribution.

But whatever silver linings Flint residents might find in the crisis, their faith in elected officials seems unlikely to be restored anytime soon. Low saw signs of racism in the crisis, likening the decisions that created the crisis in this majority-African American city to other government moves — like the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling invalidating a key provision of the Voting Rights Act and the nationwide trend to implement voter identification laws — that have disproportionately impact on minorities. Aaronson simply feels abandoned.

“I was listening to the Republican debate last night, 70 miles from here in Detroit, and there’s one question about the water,” she said last week. “One question! That’s so wrong. It should have been on the top of the list.”

David Stanley is a writer based in Flint, Mich. He served as a member of the Flint Jewish Federation board of trustees from 1990 to 1992.

Clinton, Trump to Headline AIPAC Gathering

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during United States presidential election 2016. (Gage Skidmore)

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during United States presidential election 2016. (Gage Skidmore)

The 2016 presidential campaign will make a stop at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington next week, where front-runners Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will address an expected 18,000 attendees at the pro-Israel advocacy organization’s annual event.

The conference, March 20-22 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and Verizon Center, comes after AIPAC’s defeat in its bid to stop passage of the Iran nuclear deal, negotiated by the United States and five other world powers. Iran will still be on the agenda, with sessions that discuss its compliance with the deal and likelihood of it continuing to develop a nuclear weapon.

This will be Clinton’s fourth address to the conference. The Democrat spoke twice when she was a senator and more recently when she was secretary of state. Trump has not addressed an AIPAC conference. But in December he addressed the Republican Jewish Coalition and described himself as “a negotiator like you folks” and insisted that he would be able to negotiate a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

The conference comes after AIPAC’s defeat in its bid to stop passage of the Iran nuclear deal.

All Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have been invited to speak, said an AIPAC source, who spoke on background. This is key in seeing where a potential president believes the U.S.-Israel relationship stands, the source said.

Iran was the key issue during the last two conferences. Both featured addresses from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who strongly condemned any agreement between the United States and Iran.

Netanyahu had planned to speak at this year’s conference in conjunction with a scheduled visit to the White House. However, last week, he canceled his trip to Washington and will speak to AIPAC via satellite.

Netanyahu said his office determined that he would not be able to meet with Obama ahead of the president’s trip to Cuba on March 21. But National Security Council spokesman Ned Price disputed this rationale, saying that the White House had offered to arrange a meeting between the two leaders on March 18.

Other Israeli speakers include Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Knesset member Ofer Shelah and former ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor.

Other topics to be discussed will be U.S. security assistance to Israel; the two countries are negotiating an increased defense aid package beginning in 2018. The potential for bilateral negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians is also on the conference agenda.

AIPAC’s actions, particularly working with Republicans and Congress to oppose the administration-supported Iran nuclear deal, revived criticisms that the once bipartisan pro- Israel group is now firmly aligned with the GOP.

Last summer, AIPAC spent millions of dollars on an advertising campaign that was carried out by the group Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran. AIPAC also lobbied members of Congress to oppose the deal.

When the Senate voted, all Republicans and four Democrats came out against the nuclear agreement.

Former AIPAC executive director Morris Amitay said AIPAC remains a bipartisan organization, but Obama’s foreign policy has complicated American support for Israel.

“As far as partisan, [the conference] is partisan because we have a Democratic president who’s been the worst president on Israel we’ve ever had.”

“A lot of the senators were under incredible pressure to go with [Obama],” Amitay said. “It’s not the first big fight that AIPAC or the pro-Israel community has lost.”

Clinton supported the Iran deal, as did Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md), and both will also speak at the conference. Vice President Joe Biden also is scheduled to speak.

Longtime AIPAC member Steve Sheffey of Chicago said he thinks Clinton’s presence is simply an attempt to “create the appearance of bipartisanship”.

He said AIPAC is committing “political malpractice” by punishing Democrats who supported the deal but are otherwise pro-Israel.

“AIPAC’s past work has earned it the benefit of the doubt,” he wrote in an op-ed for The Hill last fall, “but there is a limit to how long voices like mine can be marginalized.” JT

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

Sharansky Headlines Dahan Lecture

Natan Sharansky (center) with Morty Macks (left) and Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg at Beth Tfiloh in 1986 (Beth Tfiloh Congregation)

Natan Sharansky (center) with Morty Macks (left) and Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg at Beth Tfiloh in 1986 (Beth Tfiloh Congregation)

Natan Sharansky, one of Israel’s most celebrated citizens and politicians, will make a return to Beth Tfiloh Congregation after 30 years to discuss how Israel’s relationship with the world Jewish community has evolved.

Sharansky, chairman of the executive for the Jewish Agency for Israel and former member of the Israeli government, comes to Baltimore on March 15, prior to attending the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Policy Conference in Washington, D.C.

“In addition to the AIPAC meeting, I’m using it to meet the leaders of the Federation because the federations are our main partners,” Sharansky said in an interview with the Jewish Times. He will meet with members of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington during his visit.

Sharansky gained attention in 1977 when he was accused by the Soviet Union of being a spy for the United States and sentenced to prison in a forced labor camp, or gulag. In 1986, he was released with the help of his wife, Avital, and diplomatic efforts from the U.S. government.

It was not long after his  release that Sharansky made his first visit to Baltimore, appearing at Beth Tfiloh at an event that Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg  describes as “unforgettable.”

“He’s one of the most  remarkable Jews of our generation,” Wohlberg said. “He  inspired a whole generation in terms of Soviet Jews and American Jews who stood up for what they believe in.”

[Natan Sharansky is] one of the most remarkable Jews of our  generation. He inspired a whole generation in terms of Soviet Jews and American Jews who stood up for what they believe in.
— Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg

 

Wohlberg added that Sharansky has served as a personal role model to him.

“Politically for what he’s done for Israel and what he’s done to keep a balance  between religious and secular Jews is something very dear to me,” he said. “It took a person of his stature and conviction and courage to be a bridge. Otherwise, there would have been a chasm.”

Sharansky’s visit will mark the third year of Beth Tfiloh’s annual Dahan Lecture, which honors the late Haron Dahan, who was a benefactor of Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. Previous speakers  include Charles Krauthammer and Alan Dershowitz in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

Sharansky said his lecture will focus on “uniting all forces” including cooperation between American Jews and Soviet Jews who have discovered their identity. He will also discuss challenges facing the world and ways American Jewry can support Israel in its “fight to guarantee their future.”

One of Sharansky’s recent accomplishments was an agreement reached in January after three years of negotiations with the Israeli government to create an egalitarian section of the Western Wall — an agreement that has been rejected by the Original Women of the Wall due to a clause that forbids the group from worshipping in the women’s section.

“I think it’s an extremely  important agreement which was reached,” Sharansky said. “And I might add that all sides had to make one serious  concession.”

Sharansky said the agreement is meant to promote inclusion among the diversity of people who come to the wall to pray, and he hopes it will become the basis of future agreements.

“You think it would be a good idea if they were both part of the solution, but you definitely don’t want to exclude those hundreds of thousands of [non-Orthodox] Jews,” he said. “So I think that that was a very important understanding of how it is important to keep all of us together, even if it means you have to overcome adversities.”

Sharansky said he remains concerned about the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal that the United States and five other world powers reached over the summer due to its  support of terrorist organizations that have threatened to  destroy Israel.

“Iran continues to very  actively support Hezbollah, and Tehran continues to speak about the world without Zionism, and at the same time its goal is to become a tyrannical superpower and enjoy all the benefits of corporations in  the free world,” he said. “So it concerned me before signing the agreement, and it concerns me after.”

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

J Street Popping Up in Role Traditionally Played by NJDC

When Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matt Brooks takes the stage in Las Vegas next week to debate foreign affairs, his opponent will not be a heavyweight from the National Jewish Democratic Council, the RJC’s opposite number.

Stepping onto the stage at Temple Beth Shalom will be Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal pro-Israel J Street.

The NJDC, known as the main Democratic lobbying group in the Jewish community, closed its Washington headquarters in December, dismissed its staff and contracted its business to a public relations firm.

The organization has been without an executive director since Rabbi Jack Moline stepped down in 2014. Since then the NJDC has been led by its chairman, Greg Rosenbaum.

This smaller public footprint leaves some wondering who will speak for Jewish  Democrats. However, on Tuesday, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, announced that Aaron Weinberg, who was previously active in J Street U — the collegiate arm of J Street, had been appointed the DNC’s director of Jewish Engagement. His job will entail working in battleground states to engage Jewish leaders, along with reaching out to youth, seniors and community leaders in an effort to increase voter turnout.

“The Jewish community  understands what’s at stake for our economy, cares deeply about protecting health care access for all and unfettered women’s and civil rights, values having a fully functioning democracy with a full Supreme Court and strongly supports the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Wasserman Schultz said in  a written statement. “I’m looking forward to working with Aaron in this endeavor to  help keep our country moving forward.”

Republican Jewish Coalition spokesman Mark McNulty said that when it comes to an  opposing Jewish political  organization, the RJC’s attention has shifted elsewhere.

“The NJDC has basically closed up shop, so to have  a forum like [the Las Vegas  debate], the RJC has to engage with groups like J Street,”  he said.

Rosenbaum said that the NJDC is focusing on “fewer states, where our efforts can make a major impact, both  because the state is ‘in play’ and because of a meaningful Jewish population.” To be sure, the battle NJDC faces is different from the RJC’s, owing in large part to the fact that the majority of American Jews either identify with the Democratic Party or vote for Democratic candidates.

Rosenbaum added, “When you consider that only 10 states did not vote for the same party in each of the past four presidential elections and only five of those voted for the winner each time, the field sorts itself out. If only Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Virginia and Nevada, in fact, were really swing states, it is clear where our advocacy and efforts should focus as the election approaches.”

Ben-Ami said that while  J Street has endorsed both  Democrats and Republicans for elected office in the past, its positions on Israel and support for the Iran nuclear deal make his organization well  positioned to debate Brooks and the RJC.

“J Street’s approach lines up more with the Democratic Party at this moment,” he said.

The debate, which will be televised March 9 and moderated by Nevada political  reporter Jon Ralston, is the first in a series of discussions about Israel being hosted by the Board of Rabbis of Southern Nevada.

Las Vegas Rabbi Yocheved Mintz said the board chose the RJC and J Street because they wanted a group from the left and one from the right.

“They were the first people that they thought of,” she said.

“We are not political,” she said. “We are community-minded. This is to get the community to sit down and talk in a calm and cool manner. And we’re hoping to provide  an atmosphere that will be  conducive to a civil discourse.”

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

Hillel Conference Empowers Young Jewish Women

Loribeth Weinstein, CEO of Jewish Women International, addresses more than 125 students at the Jewish Women’s Leadership Conference at the University of Maryland Hillel. (Photo by Justin Katz)

Loribeth Weinstein, CEO of Jewish Women International, addresses more than 125 students at the Jewish Women’s Leadership Conference at the University of Maryland Hillel. (Photo by Justin Katz)

More than 125 students gathered at the University of Maryland Hillel to network, mingle and learn from guest lecturers at the Jewish Women’s Leadership Conference on Feb. 28.

“Leadership is one of the core pillars of our work [at JWI],” Loribeth Weinstein, CEO of Jewish Women International, told students and fellow speakers during her keynote speech. “There is nothing more important for every one of you as you go out and get started in your career and your life than to take on the challenges of your own economic empowerment.”

The conference, co-chaired by students Rivka Golding and Raquel Weinberg, was sponsored by the Career Center at the University of Maryland, Keshet, Alpha Epsilon Phi, Sigma Delta Tau, JewelErry, Quartermaine Coffee Roasters and OPI.

“I hope that [the students] make lasting connections with the women they’ve talked to today and that they follow up and email the people they’ve met,” said Golding, who emphasized the conference was focused on the concept of mentorship. “I also hope they walk away feeling empowered and they see these women as role models. [I want them to] walk away knowing that in five or 20 years, this could be them.”

The range of women speaking at the conference varied from recent school alumnae to corporate executives.

“It’s really gratifying and fun [to speak at my alma mater],” said Jenna Gebel, who graduated in 2010 and is now an M.B.A. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. “I think [the fact] they do this conference is incredible and anything I can do to better the school and help other women is wonderful.”

Gebel’s presentation, “Building and Maintaining a Professional Network,” focused on her experiences networking and offering practical advice. She spoke about her experiences meeting Goodwill Industries International senior vice president Wendi Copeland.

While attending a conference about social entrepreneurship, she was seated next to Copeland and decided to start a conversation. After being “blown away” by Copeland’s work, she decided to give her a phone call that afternoon.

“What’s even [crazier] is that [despite how busy Copeland was], she actually picked up the phone when I called,” said Gebel.

After meeting for coffee and discussing Copeland’s work, Gebel saw a position open up at GII. She was chosen for the position and later discovered that Copeland vouched for her from a pool of more than 100 candidates.

“That, for me, was the first lesson that networking is powerful,” said Gebel.

Another leader at the conference who was reaching out to students during the opening cocktail hour was Melissa Rosen, director of national outreach at Sharsheret, an organization that supports young Jewish women and families facing breast and ovarian cancer.

“This is a great time [to talk about family health history], as men and women are forming health habits and living as adults for the first time,” said Rosen.

One in 40 Ashkenazi Jews carries a BRCA gene mutation, according to Shasheret, nearly 10 times the rates of the general population. This makes Jewish families more susceptible to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.

Abbie Weisberg is the CEO of Keshet, a Chicago-based organization providing educational, recreational, vocational and social programs for individuals with intellectual disabilities that operates according to traditional Jewish values.

Her presentation, “Pursuing Your Passion,” focused on how she became the head of the nonprofit and on how to turn a passion into a career.

“Always start backwards. Ask yourself where you want to be, what is your goal?” said Weisberg to the 50 students who attended her session. “It’s OK if you don’t know. … When I started at Keshet, I had no idea where my career was going to go.”

Weisberg, who has devoted more than 25 years to children with special needs, was named Jewish Chicagoan of the Year by the Chicago Jewish News and placed on JWI’s list of 10 Women to Watch.

Other speakers included Julie Kantor, president and CEO of Twomentor; Shulamith Klein, chief risk office for Emory University and Emory Healthcare; Juanita Weaver, owner of Creative Connections; and Erica Bernstein, founder and CEO of JewelErry.

Weisberg’s piece of advice to the women in attendance was concise.

“Continue to learn.”

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

Disability Advocates Focus on Jobs, Caregivers during Congress Visit

From left: During Jewish Disability Advocacy Day, Aaron Kaufman, senior legislative  associate at the Jewish Federations of North America moderated a panel with Jennifer Sheehy, acting assistant secretary of the United States Office of Disability Employment  Policy in the Department of Labor; Jennifer Lazlo Mizrahi, CEO of RespectAbility; and Genie Cohen, executive director of International Association of Jewish Vocational Services. (Suzanne Pollak)

From left: During Jewish Disability Advocacy Day, Aaron Kaufman, senior legislative associate at the Jewish Federations of North America moderated a panel with Jennifer Sheehy, acting assistant secretary of the United States Office of Disability Employment Policy in the Department of Labor; Jennifer Lazlo Mizrahi, CEO of RespectAbility; and Genie Cohen, executive director of International Association of Jewish Vocational Services. (Suzanne Pollak)

About 130 Jewish activists descended on Capitol Hill on Feb. 10 to lobby for measures that would help people with disabilities and their caregivers as part of Jewish Disability Advocacy Day, led by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Religious Action Committee of Reform Judaism (RAC). The day was also sponsored by more than two dozen other  Jewish organizations.

Lee I. Sherman, president and CEO of the Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies, said he thought advocacy for the disabled was “very critical,” and  the goal was to be “truly inclusive” and to raise awareness.

Beginning with an education session on disabilities, participants then broke into small groups to visit legislators to ask for support on three bills: the Transition to Independence Act; the RAISE Family Caregivers Act; and the Lifespan Respite Care Reauthorization Act.

The Transition to Independence Act, pending before the Senate Finance Committee, would fund 10 states that submit the best plans to create competitive, integrated employment for people with disabilities. Those jobs must be in a fully integrated environment with the abled and disabled working side by side.

The goal of the act is to determine the best ways to eliminate sheltered workshops, where only disabled people work. Applications must show that the people leaving specialized disability programs are the same people who obtain the new  positions. Also, the newly employed  cannot be paid subminimum wages.

Almost one-third of family  caregivers help their loved ones  at least 62 hours a week.
— Rhonda Richards, AARP’s senior legislative representative

The proposals must show that although the new programs pay better, people with disabilities may still be eligible for Medicaid. Otherwise, said Samantha Crane,  director of public policy at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, people with disabilities would have to choose between working and getting enough money [from other sources].

“Jobs are important. They not only provide income, but also help to give people self-worth,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner,  executive director of the RAC, noting that 28 percent of Americans with disabilities live in poverty and that their unemployment rate is more than twice the national average.

The other legislation addresses caregivers. The Recognize, Assist, Include, Support and Engage (RAISE) Family Caregivers Act would require the Department of Health and Human Services  to develop a national caregiving strategy that would cover workplace policies, training and support for caregivers and information and referral services.

The third bill, the Lifespan Respite Care Reauthorization Act, would set aside money for caregivers to have a temporary break. Currently, the act allots $3.3 million a year, but this bill calls for $15 million per year from now until 2020.

“Family caregiving affects just about everyone,” said Rhonda Richards, senior legislative representative of the American Association of Retired Persons. About 40 million people across the country are caregivers, she said, adding that 6.5 million of them belong to the “sandwich generation,” meaning they are responsible for the care of both their  children and their parents.

Almost one-third of family caregivers help their loved ones at least 62 hours a week, Richards said during the event, which was held at the Rayburn House Office Building.

One of five Americans has a disability, Steve Rakitt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, said in his welcoming address. Rakitt lost most of his hearing at age 2, when he became a hearing-aid wearer and lip reader.

The Federation, which hires people with disabilities, is working on updating its website so it will be accessible to people with disabilities. The Federation also is creating an assessment tool that will be available to area synagogues and organizations to see  how well their organization accommodates people with disabilities.

“Imagine a world where all children are welcome into our synagogues and offered a chance to be spiritually uplifted,  regardless of their abilities,” Rakitt said.

Pesner continued on that theme, saying that if a place does not welcome all people, “God cannot enter.”

During the event, Maria Town, associate director for the White House Office of Public Engagement, said the Obama administration is working on inclusion and wants to see more people with disabilities in the general workforce and fewer in the prison system.

Between 70 and 80 percent of people with disabilities don’t have a job, she said.

Jennifer Lazlo Mizrahi,  CEO of RespectAbility in Rockville, agreed that employment is crucial. “Employment is empowerment. It is dignity,” she told the advocates.

“Every synagogue seems to have a food drive,” but she said she would prefer a day when synagogue members sign up to mentor and become job coaches for people with  disabilities.

Sanders’ Jewish Roots So Far Have Been a Quiet Issue in Campaign

With his victory in New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders is the first Jewish American to win  a primary. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images))

With his victory in New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders is the first Jewish American to win a primary. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images))

Should Maryland voters have a say in the April 26 Democratic primary, American University political scientist David Lublin thinks that despite the state’s large Jewish population, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Jewish heritage will not have much of  an effect.

Lubin thinks former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will still emerge victorious, because Maryland has a closed primary, meaning only registered party members may vote in a primary.

“Sanders has been cleaning up with the independents in Iowa and New Hampshire,” he said of Sanders’ early success.

Despite that strong showing, Sanders is far behind Clinton in national polling in Nevada, which will hold caucuses on Feb. 20, and in South Carolina, which will hold a primary on Feb. 27.

Lublin, who studies minority representation in U.S. politics, said Sanders’ frequent reference to himself as the “son of a Polish immigrant” strikes him as odd.

“I’m of Polish-Jewish origin and I’ve never heard of someone refer to themselves as  Polish when they’re Jewish,” he said.

He said Sanders should let his ethnic roots show, an approach that has aided Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in his presidential bid.

“Part of the American experience is that we tend to celebrate our origins and our success in America,” he said. “Marco Rubio has a very compelling story. He talks about how he was raised by humble [Cuban] immigrants and worked his way up. And that’s great. It doesn’t make him less American, it makes him more American.”

The secular Sanders stands in stark contrast to the last Jewish American to participate in a presidential campaign — former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who was Al Gore’s running mate in 2000. Lieberman keeps kosher and observes the Sabbath.

Dan Gerstein, a New York-based political consultant who was a spokesman for the Gore/Lieberman campaign, said at that time there was a “euphoria” over a Jew being on the ticket. But the reaction broke down into three schools of thought.

Younger Jews were entirely behind Lieberman. Middle-aged Jews were  excited that a Jew had risen to such a high leadership role, but were still uncomfortable with Lieberman’s observance. Older Jews who had lived through the Holocaust were worried about lingering anti-Semitism, Gerstein said.

“It was more his declarations of religiosity and his faith in God and religious values, and because so many Jews have become accustomed to Jewish politicians being very secular and defenders of the church-state lines, there was no getting around it,” Gerstein said. “That made some Jews in the Democratic Party  uncomfortable.”

That election was one of the closest in history, with just over 500 votes in Florida separating Gore and Republican George W. Bush. Gerstein believes Lieberman’s presence on the ticket allowed Gore to be competitive in Florida by appealing to faith-based communities.

“Because Sen. Lieberman was devout in his faith, he had very strong ties to the evangelical community, and I don’t think many secular Jews appreciated this. But for many Christians, the ties of religiosity trump the difference in faith or the divide between Jews and Christians,” he said.

Gerstein said Sanders’ appeal has mainly come from a disgust with the Washington establishment and the feeling that Clinton has been a part of the culture there for so long.

“For people who feel Washington has been captured by special interests, he’s willing to tell a truth that resonates with them,” he said.

Gerstein said that Sanders has been  effective at reaching the left wing of the party and has been able to appeal to progressives who were against the Iraq War, which Clinton voted for. But he thinks Sanders will have a more difficult time with Jews whose primary concern is  Israel’s security.

“The Jewish community obviously is not monolithic, and many Jews vote based on policy toward Israel, and I think there’s going to be a bloc of Jewish voters who might be more into voting for Hillary based on foreign policy,” he said.

“My attitude about Bernie Sanders is I’m glad he’s there,” he added. “He’s kind of like the ACLU. I want him there to hold people accountable, but I would not want him in charge of foreign policy.”

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com