First the Vote, Then the Ads

An advertisement in which 41 Reform Jews accuse Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) President Rabbi Rick Jacobs of “divisive” leadership for his threat to pull URJ out of the Conference of Presidents over the rejection of J Street. (Jews Against Divisive Leadership)

An advertisement in which 41 Reform Jews accuse Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) President Rabbi Rick Jacobs of “divisive” leadership for his threat to pull URJ out of the Conference of Presidents over the rejection of J Street.
(Jews Against Divisive Leadership)

An organization claiming to represent Reform and Conservative congregants has published full-page ads in Jewish newspapers across the country blasting their denomination’s leaders for supporting the inclusion of the “pro-peace pro-Israel” group J Street in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

While the criticism of the religious leadership is clear, it is unclear to what extent the group represents the views of the estimated 1.5 million Reform and Conservative congregants.

The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations last month voted 22-17, with three abstentions, to reject J Street’s bid to join the umbrella group, often called the spokesman of the Jewish community. Despite the rejection, Jews Against Divisive Leadership, led by Carol Greenberg of Potomac, launched the attack ads.

“Voting to include J Street in the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations was not advocating for diversity. It was falling for duplicity,” said the Conservative version of the ad, which ran in New York Jewish Week, the New York Jewish Press, the Boston Jewish Advocate, Washington Jewish Week and the Baltimore Jewish Times. It was undersigned by 60 names, 23 of whom are Washington-area residents, along with the congregations they belong to.

The Reform version of the ad, printed a week earlier, went after Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), calling him a “divisive leader.” It was signed by 40 people, none from the Washington area.

“We told you that he would use his position to bolster the anti-Israel J Street. We told you that he would try to diminish American Jewry’s support for Israel,” the ad admonished, apparently alluding to opposition before Jacobs became URJ head in 2012. “But we did not know quite how divisive Rabbi Jacobs would be. We did not expect that when he failed to persuade the Conference of Presidents to accept J Street as a major Jewish organization–which it is not–he would threaten to take the URJ out of the Conference and ask others to leave, too, over differences about Israeli foreign policy.”

In a statement following the Conference of Presidents vote, Jacobs said the conference “is captive of a large number of small organizations that do not represent the diversity of views in our community.” He hinted that after due consideration, the URJ may decide to leave the conference.

Greenwald was out of the country at publication time and unavailable for comment. She is a prominent member of COPMA, the local group that led a boycott of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington for its support of the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center, whose Theater J presented a play the group considered anti-Israel.

In the Presidents’ Conference vote, all four groups representing Reform Judaism and all but one representing Conservative Judaism voted in favor of J Street, saying that even if some do not agree with J Street’s perspective, the Conference of Presidents should reflect the full spectrum of American Jewish opinion.

Jacobs, who was on J Street’s board of directors before taking the helm at URJ, was one of the most outspoken of the representatives who voted in J Street’s favor.

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, of Conservative Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, where Greenwald and a number of the ad’s signatories are members, said the Conservative leadership moved on J Street without taking the whole movement with them.

“I think part of what upset people really was the fact that certain leaders in the Conservative movement were so out front, advocating so strongly, which seemed not to take into consideration the feelings of various members of conservative synagogues and rabbis who felt differently,” he said.

Weinblatt added that he was not surprised by the ad’s sentiments.

“These are people who care deeply about Israel, who feel a sense of having been disenfranchised,” he said. “Usually most Jewish organizations are driven by consensus and trying to reflect the overall position of its members and in this particular case it’s hard to gauge really how accurate a reflection it was to take the position that they took.”

Jessica Rosenblum, director of media and communications at J Street, dismissed the ads, saying that it does not surprise her “that 40 people in the Reform movement and 60 people in the Conservative movement … are strongly opposed to their respective leaders’ decisions to support J Street’s admission to the Conference of Presidents.”

“The Reform and Conservative movements voted to admit J Street to the Conference of Presidents, not because they agree with everything J Street says,” Rosenblum wrote in an email. “They did no more than faithfully represent the diversity of opinion within their movements–but such diversity is apparently unacceptable to the signers of these advertisements.”

Congressional Dealings

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) (right) and ranking member Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn) hold a news conference after a Senate vote on an aid package for Ukraine at the Capitol in Washington. (JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS/Newscom)

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) (right) and ranking member Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn) hold a news conference after a Senate vote on an aid package for Ukraine at the Capitol in Washington.

The killing of a major pro-Israel bill in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week has ignited another round of finger pointing between Democratic and Republican senators, with both sides accusing the other of playing politics.

Committee chairman Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) pulled the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013 (S. 462) from the committee’s agenda May 19, after ranking member Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) proposed an amendment requiring the administration to present any nuclear agreement it reaches with Iran to Congress for its approval.

Although any congressional vote would be nonbinding, Menendez said that Corker’s amendment, which had nothing to do with Israel, could have hurt bipartisan support for the pro-Israel bill.

The bill would bolster the U.S.-Israel relationship by reaffirming previous policy and pursuing greater cooperation on defense, homeland security, energy, and cyber security. It declared Israel “a major strategic partner.”

The bill was introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) in 2013, gained bipartisan support, and was lobbied for by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee as part of its legislative agenda.

“Sen. Boxer asked us to take it down, and I agreed with her,” said Menendez, who explained that the bill had been worked on “for the better part a year.

“We finally had broad bipartisan support for [the bill], solved some of the visa waiver issues [for Israelis seeking to enter the U.S.], and then in the last minutes, without any heads up, we get an amendment that in my mind, while maybe worthy of debate, is not worthy to put into this bill and take this bill down,” he said.

According to a senior Democratic staffer, the Corker amendment surprised Democrats who had hoped the bill would easily sail through the committee for a vote on the Senate floor.

“Unfortunately, basically at the 11th hour toward the tail end of the deadline where you can submit amendments, we got an amendment from Corker which was a bit of a shock because everyone had been working with him for months on this,” the staffer said.

Menendez is seen as one of the leaders pushing for sanctions and congressional oversight on the Iran negotiations, co-authoring the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act (S. 1881) with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) at the end of last year. He said the nonbinding resolutions that Corker’s amendment requires would dilute the Senate’s push for oversight of a final agreement with Iran, as recommended in the Menendez-Kirk bill, which is still awaiting a vote on the floor.

“Why would I want to go for an inferior vote when I have a far more reaching, significant vote?” said Menendez.

The Corker amendment would have Congress voting on an Iran nuclear plan before the administration agrees to it, rather than overseeing a sanctions adjustment post-agreement, as stipulated in the Menendez-Kirk bill.

“We put sanctions in place to get them to the table so I’m disappointed that it appears that there’s not going to be a role for weighing in on the overall deal,” Corker said, explaining the reasoning behind his amendment. “I realize that there may be individual sanctions relief issues that we deal with over time but I think we have an important role to play here and I think I’d like to see us vote on it.”

Kirk, although not a Foreign Relations Committee member but active on pro-Israel and other foreign policy legislation, expressed disappointment over Menendez’s decision.

“He was maybe afraid that Congress was going to do the right thing — that members would vote, that indeed the Senate should be able to review the Iran agreement,” Kirk said when asked why he thinks Menendez pulled the bill. “I would say the sanctions should probably pass and over time we’re going to realize that that agreement with Iran is less and less.”

Had Menendez not withdrawn the bill, committee Democrats would have been required to make a tough vote for or against the amendment. Going against the amendment could have put into question Democrats’ support for Israel, which is highly skeptical of the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran and therefore in favor of congressional oversight. Favoring the amendment, meanwhile, would have pitted Democrats against the White House, which has taken a tough stand against measures for congressional oversight of the Iran talks, including those in Menendez’s own bill.

Two days after Menendez killed the bill, he received the Zionist Organization of America’s (ZOA) Defender of Zion Award. Considered by some the most uncompromising pro-Israel organization, the ZOA received Menendez warmly. National President Morton Klein said the senator showed “extraordinary courage in speaking out, even on issues he knows that much of his party may not be there with him.”

In his speech to the ZOA, Menendez did not explain his decision on the Strategic Partnership bill, but said he wouldn’t allow anyone to politicize support for Israel.

Though Klein did not agree with Menendez’s decision on the bill, he said that after talking to staff, he felt assured that Menendez had good reasons for what he did and didn’t feel it was appropriate to bring the issue up at the ZOA ceremony.

“If he politically thought the bill won’t have a chance with this amendment then he did the right thing even though, of course, we regretted that he had to do it,” Klein said. “He has to feel uncomfortable because he’s as great a friend of Israel in the Senate as there is, period. Politics will force you to do things you don’t agree with.”

Klein also said that the issue should not get in the way of looking at Menendez’s long commitment to Israel, and that the senator still deserved to be recognized for that.

“Of course he deserves the award. I mean, he’s done everything for Israel. All his positions have been fantastic,” Klein said. “He’s given the most extraordinary speeches on the Senate floor.”

“Speeches that sound like I would have written them,” he added. “So even if there’s a thing or two that we don’t agree with, his body of work is extraordinary.”

Although the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership bill’s journey in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is over, Boxer has said she plans to “hotline” the bill — bypassing the committee for a vote on the Senate floor. The process requires the bill, which has 62 co-sponsors, to receive a unanimous consent. contributed to this story.

‘No Cattle Car For Me’

Shooters at the Angeles Shooting Range in L.A. take aim. (Anthony Weiss/JTA)

Shooters at the Angeles Shooting Range in L.A. take aim.
(Anthony Weiss/JTA)

LOS ANGELES — It’s a sunny morning in Southern California and Lea Rosenfeld, a soft-spoken, bespectacled woman who looks like a Jewish grandmother, squares her feet, faces her target and squeezes off five shots with a handgun.

All of them miss.

“I never even held a gun in my hands before,” she later confesses. “I’m still shaking.”

Still, Rosenfeld keeps shooting in the hot sun. She says she’s doing it because of her parents and what they endured: Both were Holocaust survivors.

“My question has always been why they didn’t fight back, and my mother could never give me a good answer,” Rosenfeld said. “They weren’t prepared for it, they didn’t believe it was going to happen, and they didn’t have anything to fight back with.”

That’s what motivated Doris Wise Montrose, president of the Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, to organize the recent day of firearms instruction at the Angeles Shooting Range in northeast Los Angeles.

Montrose’s organization is more of a one-woman operation than a group. By her own account, it consists of Montrose and “a humongous email list.” The organization is dedicated, according to its website, to “The New Holocaust Resistance.”

Much of that has consisted of Montrose organizing lectures with a decidedly right-wing bent. She has hosted such figures as Eugene Volokh, the libertarian-leaning UCLA law professor, and Pamela Geller, the anti-Islam activist behind the current bus ad campaign in Washington that features a photograph of Hitler and the grand mufti of Jerusalem with the line “Islamic Jew-hatred: It’s in the Quran.”

“I think what Doris is trying to do is to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive so we will not forget its important lessons,” said Alex Kozinski, the chief judge of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and a friend of Montrose who has spoken to her group.

Recently, however, Montrose decided that lectures and emails were not enough.

So it was that on a Sunday in mid-May, she and seven others — three of them children of Holocaust survivors — gathered to receive “point and shoot” instruction from Itamar Gelbman, 32, a former lieutenant in the Israel Defense Forces.

“We talk about defending ourselves, but we have to do something aside from sharing email articles,” Montrose said.

Gelbman — a strapping 6-foot-3 grandson of survivors who has served as a bodyguard for Britney Spears (“Never again,” he vows) and has run for Congress from Texas (he lost) — began by running through safety instructions. He taught the handgun technique used by the IDF: square feet, square shoulders, both eyes open.

With varying degrees of accuracy and confidence, the participants blasted away at paper targets depicting an armed shooter. After each cycle of shooting, Gelbman assessed the results.

“He’s dead.”

“He would definitely be on the floor.”

Who precisely the attacker would be is unclear. Gelbman frames his instruction mostly in terms of home invasions, but it’s clear attendees are concerned about more than just their homes.

“When the Muslims say they want to kill us and drive us into the sea, I believe them,” said David Sievers, a retired cancer surgeon and reserve sheriff’s deputy who turns out to be a crack shot.

“No cattle car for me,” Montrose quips after one good round of shooting.

Over lunch, Les Hajnal, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, points out that often it was not the Nazis but locals who rounded up the Jews in countries such as Poland and Hungary.

“You know what the Hungarians did to the memorial of the shoes?” Hajnal asked, describing a memorial to murdered Jews on the banks of the Danube in Budapest. “They defecated in it. Such nice people.”

Montrose warns that anti-Semitism is rising again (a recent Anti-Defamation League survey found that approximately 1.1 billion people around the world harbor deeply anti-Semitic attitudes).

While Montrose and Gelbman believe there is a growing interest in self-defense — the firearms class quickly sold out — they know that the men and women who turned out for the training represent a distinct minority within the Jewish community.

Diaspora Jews prefer to be passive and non-confrontational rather than fight back, Gelbman says.

“I think that Jews in general, they give the benefit of the doubt, and they don’t like to be aggressive,” he said. “I think that’s one of the things that was a problem in the Holocaust.”

As the day wraps up and the shooters start to head home, Rosenfeld stays on, firing round after round. Gelbman rewards her with a target of his own creation: a depiction of the late Muammar Gadhafi as a zombie. Gelbman hands Rosenfeld a Glock 9-mm handgun and steps back.

She squares to the target, aims and blasts away, hitting the zombie Gadhafi dead-on with all five shots.

A Matter of Interpretation

Reaction is mixed as to whether the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling this month allowing local governments to begin their meetings with a sectarian prayer will lead to more religion in the public arena or possibly even government funding of religious schools.

In the case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, the majority of justices said Christian prayer at a public meeting does not violate the constitutional provision forbidding government from establishing a religion. The five-member majority agreed that as long as no one is coerced into participating in the prayer, it was permissible.

Attorney Nathan Lewin, who agreed with the ruling, believes it could be influential in paving the way for public financial aid to Jewish day schools. “This is one of the steps saying, fine, it is not against the law” to support private religious schools, he said.

But others disagree, including Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union’s Advocacy Center. The court’s belief about coercion is not new, he said.  Diament believes that funding issues are different.

It is permissible to use funds to repair a religious building if it’s in a depressed area, but that has little to do with religion, Diament said, explaining the courts have allowed government money to be used to fix up a section of downtown Detroit that included some churches.

Courts have ruled that it is OK to give funds to religious institutions as long as the money is not used for religious purposes, Diament explained. One example of that is the use of school buses by both public and private schools.

Marc Stern, general counsel at the AJC, said there has long been an exception allowing prayer at legislative meetings and that the recent ruling is not all that new. Even the four justices who dissented, including all the Jewish members, did not want to outlaw sectarian prayers, Stern said. “They just wanted to be sensitive and make sure you have a broad array of people” leading prayers.

His concern is not so much what the justices ruled as how individual towns will interpret it. He said a Christian prayer opening a meeting at a town in the Bible Belt is one thing. But what if a court proceeding begins with a religious, Christian prayer, and the person charged with a crime cannot leave the room?

“I think a lot of people are going to say, ‘We don’t want [religious prayers] at our meetings.’ We’ll have to see how that plays out,” Stern said. “This is going to be very interesting to watch.”

Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK, the Jewish day school network, also did not necessary believe the courts will favorably consider public funding for religious schools following their recent ruling, calling that view “a leap.”

“We as an organization that is designed to advocate and support and guide Jewish day schools clearly believe in the power of prayer,” Kramer said. However, RAVSAK does not want to see religion promoted in public, Kramer added, explaining that neither a Christmas nativity scene nor a menorah belongs in the public square.

Sterling apologizes in first interview since racist rant

Donald Sterling, the Los Angeles Clippers owner banned for life from the NBA for making racist comments, publicly apologized in his first interview since the remarks were made public.

“I’m a good member who made a mistake, and I am apologizing and asking for forgiveness,” Sterling said in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper that aired Monday evening, with excerpts released earlier in the day. “I love my league, I love my partners. Am I entitled to one mistake? It’s a terrible mistake, and I’ll never do it again.”

Asked by Cooper why he waited so long to apologize, Sterling said it was because he was “so emotionally distraught.”

“The reason it’s hard for me, very hard for me, is that I’m wrong. I caused the problem. I don’t know how to correct it,” he told Cooper.

Under the punishment laid down late last month by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, Sterling may not associate with the team or the league after it was determined that his was the voice recorded without his knowledge making the racist rant, which included comments about black Jews in Israel. Sterling will be pressured to sell the team; he also was fined $2.5 million.

Finding Christie’s Footing

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s words undermine his overall record. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s words undermine his overall record.
(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the possible GOP presidential contender who raised the hackles of many a pro-Israel Republican with an off-the-cuff remark in March about the “occupied territories” of the West Bank, will get another chance to appeal to high-profile Jewish donors this Sunday.

Many see the earlier flap at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s leadership retreat in Las Vegas as water under the bridge, especially after Christie reportedly apologized to political donor, philanthropist and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who hosted the event, in a closed-door meeting. But others view what they consider a record of supporting New Jersey residents with ties to terrorist organizations as disqualifying the colorful governor from seeking the party’s support.

That’s what makes his appearance at the annual Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala in New York City so important, observers say, even as Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whose This World: The Values Network is hosting the May 18 gathering, calls the event decidedly nonpolitical. Boteach, the media-savvy New Jersey rabbi and author who himself mounted an unsuccessful run for Congress in 2012, has amassed a panoply of heavy-hitting politicians and financiers, including Republican Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, freshman Sen. Corey Booker (D-N.J.), Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, Judy and Michael Steinhardt, anti-genocide campaigner John Prendergast and actor-activist Sean Penn.

Among the most vocal individuals expressing distrust of Christie is Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America. He was in the audience at the Venetian Resort and Hotel when the governor described a “helicopter ride from the occupied territories” to “understand the military risk that Israel faces every day.”

“It’s generally understood that these are at a minimum disputed territories, not occupied, and that Israel has a far greater claim to it politically, legally, historically and religiously than the Arabs,” said Klein, who initially said he would boycott Boteach’s gathering this weekend over Christie’s appearance before reversing himself this week.

Christie reportedly told Adelson later that weekend that he “misspoke” in his Vegas appearance.

Although he accused Christie of being “rude, insensitive and [showing] a complete disinterest in the issue” when he followed the governor into a hallway behind the stage at the Venetian, Klein told the Washington Jewish Week that he will attend the New York gala out of deference to Boteach and the Adelsons, whom he described as “close friends.” He clarified, however, that he won’t be applauding Christie.

“Everyone I spoke to — and I spoke to maybe a dozen people in the next day or so after this — we’re all horrified that he would use such a term [and] that his only response was, ‘I misspoke,’” Klein said of the “occupied territories” remark.

The rift, which has lined up a small cadre of pro-Israel conservative commentators and Republican donors against a Christie presidential candidacy, has created headaches for Boteach.

“I cannot tell you how much troubleshooting I’ve been doing trying to keep people under the same tent when each is objecting to the presence of the other,” said the rabbi, who ran as a Republican in New Jersey’s Ninth Congressional District on a family-values platform. “It is remarkable.”

Boteach called the controversy just one example of how much more Americans now care about what people may think rather than their actions. He argued that Christie should be judged on his body of work as opposed to just one comment but added that he believes the governor to be sufficiently pro-Israel and friendly to the Jewish community.

“My issue with our current political climate, and this is a value statement as opposed to a political statement, is that it rejects values,” explained Boteach. “It’s not about what people do, it’s about what people say or believe, and a single statement can create a news cycle for an entire week.

“Harry Truman did wonders for the Jewish people — he voted for Israel as a state against phenomenal pressure from his own Secretary of State George Marshall. But we discovered a decade ago in analyzing his private diaries that he thought Jews were more cruel than any nation on earth,” continued the rabbi. “Richard Nixon had profanity-laced diatribes against Jews in his White House tapes, but he did infinitely more than his Jewish secretary of state in the 1973 Yom Kippur war to save Israel, to resupply Israel, when Israel really was on the brink of annihilation.”

Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum and an outspoken supporter of Israel and critic of America’s recent foreign policy in the region, said Christie’s gaff follows several cases of the politician backing the wrong horse when it came to Middle Eastern affairs dating back to when he was the U.S. attorney for the district of New Jersey.

In 2008, Passaic County, N.J., resident Imam Mohammad Qatanani was discovered by the FBI to have been previously arrested and convicted in Israel for aiding and abetting the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Qatanani failed to disclose the three-month detention when applying for a green card. But in the lead-up to the cleric’s trial, Christie supported Qatanani, meeting with him at his mosque and calling him “a man of great goodwill,” Pipes and co-author Steven Emerson, executive director of the Investigative Project of Terrorism, charged in an article.

Pipes said that it is not Islamophobia that is driving him and others to vehemently oppose Christie, but that if someone associates with a group that is designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization, it should be a simple decision for a U.S. attorney not to lend them his support.

Another instance that Christie’s critics raise as evidence of what they call questionable foreign policy views is his 2011 appointment of Sohail Mohammed to a state Superior Court judgeship. Mohammed, who was also an attorney in the Qatanani trial, made his name representing many of the most violent Muslim defendants after 9/11, argued Matt Rooney, an attorney and editor-in-chief of conservative news blog

“They’re objectively terrible human beings, and human being may be too generous for some of them,” said Rooney. “At the same time, some of the people who have been criticizing him, they don’t point to any illegality that he helped them do anything other than to represent them. We are a democracy, and really crappy people need to be represented.”

Jacob Toporek, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, took a nuanced approach. While the Jewish community looked into Christie’s relationship with the state’s sizable Islamic community, it concluded that the governor is generally supportive of Jewish community concerns, he said.

“It would have been better if he’d not used the [‘occupied territories’] phrase, but I certainly don’t doubt his sincerity and support for the State of Israel,” said Toporek.

Rooney characterized that misstep as more indicative of Christie’s foreign policy inexperience, a common problem that has plagued many a politician seeking national office.

“I don’t think they indicate an anti-Israel bias, and I don’t think they tell us that he would not come to Israel’s defense,” explained Rooney. He’s “certainly better than what we have right now in Washington, D.C.”

The two-term Christie has not officially announced his candidacy for the 2016 GOP nomination but is one of a handful of nationally recognized Republican politicians already crisscrossing the country speaking with donors and activists at conventions and battleground states. He had been considered the most electable potential GOP candidate in 2013 until revelations last September that his staff was responsible for lane closures on the George Washington Bridge as retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not supporting Christie’s re-election.

Pipes, who was unsure whether he would attend the Boteach gala, was adamant that he would not support Christie.

“I’m against him,” said Pipes. “I’m a Republican. I like the general field of Republicans, but I am against Christie, and will do all I can to bring attention to his unsatisfactory record.” contributed to this story.

What to Do With a Jewish Racist?

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling watches a Clippers game with V. Stiviano.  (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images, courtesy of JTA News and Features)

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling watches a Clippers game with
V. Stiviano.
(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images, courtesy of JTA News and Features)

Following the fallout from the recording of racist comments by the Jewish owner of the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Clippers, Jewish organizations, both local and national, moved quickly to take the focus off his ethnicity and remind the country of the Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement.

Meanwhile, elements of the Jewish community in Southern California, including a number of organizations Sterling donated to, are worried that focus on Sterling’s Jewishness has been overplayed.

“I’m troubled by the fact that the Jewish community and the Jewish press seem to be making Donald Sterling more Jewish and more of a Jewish leader than he actually is,” said Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “I think it’s dangerous for us to just take someone who’s Jewish and connect them to the Jewish community. In fact, nothing about Donald Sterling’s involvement would make you think that he’s involved in the Jewish community.”

Sanderson said that Sterling’s foundation would make occasional gifts of $10,000 to groups attached to the L.A. Jewish community “to make himself look like a philanthropist” but was uninvolved. Besides donating to the Jewish Federation, Sterling also gave to the Jewish Vocational Service, the Museum of the Holocaust, the Creative Arts Temple, the Temple of the Arts, Beit T’Shuvah, and, ironically, the Museum of Tolerance, according to the Forward.

Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance said in a statement that they fully support NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s actions against Sterling — a lifetime ban and fine of $2.5 million. Silver also urged the NBA’s board of governors to find a way to force Sterling to sell the team.

The Wiesenthal Center and Mus-eum of Tolerance no longer will accept funds from the Donald Sterling Foundation, the statement said. A previous gift of $30,000 “will not be returned because all funds were used for programming that help fight and prevent the very racism and hate that was expressed in Mr. Sterling’s tape.”

The outrage followed a leak of a taped phone call between Sterling and his mistress, V. Stiviano.

In it, Sterling told Stiviano, who is of African-American and Hispanic heritage, not to bring “black people” to his games — specifically referring to Instagram pictures of Stiviano with basketball legend Magic Johnson.

Stiviano can be heard on the recording challenging Sterling’s racism by comparing his hatred of African-Americans with hatred of Jews.

“The white Jews, there’s white Jews and black Jews, do you understand?” Sterling explained to Stiviano about Jews in Israel.

“And are the black Jews less than the white Jews?” asked Stiviano.

“A hundred percent, fifty, a hundred percent,” Sterling answered.

In addition to the local Jewish community, Sterling’s comments outraged a number of national Jewish organizations, which felt compelled to decry him publicly.

“The Jewish people have a long history of fighting racism, and we are deeply disturbed by the reprehensible statements attributed to Donald Sterling,” the Jewish Federations of North America said in a statement. ” There is no place for racism or bigotry in America today and certainly not in Jewish life.”

With the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 next month and this year the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down segregation in public schools, Sterling’s comments contradict a longstanding American Jewish tradition to support civil rights.

Jews played a large role in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Jews, including prominent rabbis both from the North and the South, participated in marches, sit-ins and freedom rides. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel demonstrated alongside Martin Luther King.

According to Larry Brooks, editor and publisher of Southern Jewish Life Magazine, Jews made up the largest proportion of the white activists arriving from the North to participate in the civil rights movement — causing resentment from Southerners who would direct their anger against the local Jewish community.

But years before the freedom riders came South, white supremacists were targeting the Jewish community. The Hebrew Benevolent Congregation in Atlanta, known as The Temple, was bombed in 1958. Its rabbi was an outspoken supporter of African-American rights. That same year, 54 sticks of dynamite were found near Temple Beth-El in Birmingham, Ala. Wet fuses prevented the detonation. In 1960, Congregation Beth Israel in Gadsden, Ala., was firebombed during Friday night services.

During the Freedom Summer of 1964, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — two Jewish activists working in Mississippi — were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan, an event and its aftermath dramatized in the film “Mississippi Burning.”

The Anti-Defamation League, established because of anti-Semitism in the South, denounced Sterling’s statements and agreed with the commissioner’s punishment. But the ADL had a different reaction when, just a week prior to the revelations about Sterling, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy was recorded openly saying that he believes that “Negroes” had it better as slaves than in the government-dependent society he says exists today.

Bundy was taking a stand against the federal Bureau of Land Management and lost much of his support after the racist comment. Unlike with Sterling, the ADL took no position against Bundy. Did the group placed Sterling under more of a microscope because he is Jewish? The ADL says no.

“We responded with a formal statement on the racist comments of Donald Sterling because this was a national and international story involving the owner of a major sports franchise whose coach and many of his players are African-American,” the ADL said in a statement to the Washington Jewish Week.

“Cliven Bundy’s racist remarks,” said the statement, “coming from an individual who was unknown to the public until recently, were so over the top, offensive and outrageous and there was enough of a public outcry that we did not feel the need to weigh in at the time with a written statement.”

What is the Presidents’ Conference?

President Barack Obama meets with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations at the White House in 2011.    (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama meets with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations at the White House in 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Last week’s vote against admitting the dovish pro-Israel group J Street into the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations may not have surprised many. J Street, with its adamant call for a two-state solution and its criticism of the Israeli government’s settlement policy, puts it to the left of most of the 50 organizations that constitute the Conference of Presidents.

But while J Street is well known in the organized Jewish world — people either love it or hate it — the identity of the group that rejected it is less understood. So even though the vote settled the question of J Street, for now at least, it raised two others: What is the Conference of Presidents, and what does it do?

“The Conference serves as the coordinating body for major American Jewish organizations,” the New York-based organization offers online, “speaking and acting on the basis of consensus, to maximize resources of the Jewish community as an effective advocate of the community.”

That’s the New York-based organization’s description of itself. The Presidents’ Conference is an umbrella group that strives to give a single voice to the varying membership of its constituent organizations. Just as important, it is considered the Jewish spokesman by governments here and abroad.

Its primary, although not sole, concern is Israel. On Monday, it took out full-page ads in The New York Times and USA Today, in which it reproduced Israel’s Declaration of Independence in celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut.

The conference, though, is actually two legal entities. One takes dues from its constituent organizations; the other raises money from donations. Tax documents show that Malcolm Hoenlein, the conference’s executive vice chairman, receives about $600,000 a year in salary and other compensation.

Deputy Director and COO Carolyn Green receives $300,000. While she provided WJW with the conference’s mission statement, she did not respond to requests to discuss the organization for this article.

Member organizations have one vote, regardless of size. This has led over the years to tensions between large organizations, which feel the conference is weighted against them, and smaller organizations, eager to protect their influence.

That tension erupted again after the April 30 J Street vote, in which 22 member groups opposed admitting J Street; 17 voted in favor, three registered abstentions, and eight were not present.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the largest group in the conference, the Union of Reform Judaism, said in a statement that the Presidents’ Conference “is captive of a large number of small organizations that do not represent the diversity of views in our community.” He hinted that after due consideration, the group may decide to leave the conference.

URJ is part of the conference’s liberal wing that, like J Street, is dovish on Israeli issues. That wing wasn’t big enough to hold the day. Jacobs contended that was because the conference’s voting and membership procedures “all but dictated the result.”

Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, a hawkish group that voted against J Street’s membership, disagrees with the argument that J Street is part of the Jewish mainstream.

“They bring to campuses and their conferences speakers who promote BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions], who defame and delegitimize Israel by falsely claiming that Israel commits atrocities and war crimes against Palestinians,” he told JTA.

ZOA campaigned hard against J Street. So if the Conference of Presidents is so unwelcoming to groups on the left, why bother joining?

“Because it serves as the recognized forum for pro-Israel activity,” said Ori Nir, spokesman for the dovish Americans for Peace Now, which voted in favor of J Street. “We feel we should be there.”

APN’s platform is similar to J Street’s. It was admitted to the Conference in 1993 but not without a battle similar to the one J Street faced.

But it was still easier to join in those days. Despite strong opposition from Klein and others, APN won a majority of votes, the necessary minimum at the time. But in the lead-up to the vote, the ZOA pushed through a rules change. In the future, organizations would need a two-thirds vote of all members for admission.

APN board chairman James Klutznick calls that a “high hurdle. I’m not sure how many could make it through today. Certainly not from the progressive end.”

Klutznick’s father, B’nai B’rith leader Philip Klutznick, helped found the Presidents’ Conference in 1954.

At that time, “President Eisenhower and [Secretary of State] John Foster Dulles wanted to have a place where they could address the Jewish community,” James Klutznick said.

That need for a central address for a rapidly expanding Jewish community was matched by Jewish organizations’ desire for access to U.S. leaders. At the same time, the young State of Israel was looking for support from both the U.S. government and American Jews. The Conference of Presidents became that central address, and although the Jewish community has changed, it retains the prestige of a central address.

Initiatives to restructure the organization have gone nowhere. Anticipating Jacobs, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, in 2003 “suggested creating a standing executive committee ‘with the largest organizations serving as permanent members and smaller organizations serving rotating terms,’” according to the “American Jewish Year Book.”

The Anti-Defamation League and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism supported the idea while Orthodox groups opposed it. This was the same lineup as in the J Street vote.

After the 2003 vote Theodore Mann, according to the “American Jewish Year Book,” a former Presidents’ Conference chairman, called for the dissolution of the conference because it was “an undemocratic institution and not worthy of our great Jewish community.”

Nir of APN wouldn’t go that far.

“The White House turns to the Presidents’ Conference,” he said. “When the administration wants to brief the organized Jewish community in an organized way, they go through the Presidents’ Conference.”

Even today, if the Conference of Presidents didn’t exist, say some, it would need to be created.

Not So Fast

J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami says that his organization “exists to help Israel reach the deal it needs.” (Photo J Street Facebook page)

J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami says that his organization “exists to help Israel reach the deal it needs.” (Photo J Street Facebook page)

In what many observers will see as the de facto expression of mainstream U.S. Jewry’s outlook on J Street, members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations last week voted 22-17 (with three abstentions) to reject the membership application of the self-labeled “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby. J Street secured the votes of only about a third of the Conference’s 50 members.

The 42 Conference members in attendance in New York exceeded the 75 percent quorum needed to hold the vote, but J Street fell significantly short of the required threshold of a two-thirds affirmative vote from the Conference’s full membership. The result that 25 organizations either voted against J Street or abstained meant that half of the Conference’s members declined to support J Street’s application.

“The Conference meticulously followed its long-established Process and Procedures Guidelines in considering J Street’s application,” Conference of Presidents chairman Robert G. Sugarman and executive vice chairman/ CEO Malcolm Hoenlein said in a statement. “The present membership of the Conference includes organizations that represent and articulate the views of broad segments of the American Jewish community, and we are confident that the Conference will continue to present the consensus of the community on important national and international issues as it has for the last 50 years.”

J Street said in a statement, “This is a sad day for us, but also for the American Jewish community and for a venerable institution that has chosen to bar the door to the communal tent to an organization that represents a substantial segment of Jewish opinion on Israel.”

Jewish leaders have used a “big tent” metaphor to describe which views on Israel and U.S. foreign policy are encompassed within the community’s consensus. Since its formation in 2008, J Street has been a frequent subject of debates on how far that tent stretches, and the group’s bid to join the Conference of Presidents proved no different.

The Forward reported that, at an April 11 meeting during which J Street had failed to win the endorsement of a crucial committee for membership in the Conference, J Street was questioned over donations it has received from liberal billionaire George Soros — whose foundations have come under scrutiny for allegedly funding anti-
Israel groups —and over the lobby’s support of the United Nations-sponsored Goldstone Report, which accused Israel of war crimes against the Palestinians. Furthermore, J Street was accused of collaborating with anti-Israel groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine.

Some Conference members were also troubled that J Street, if voted in, would have been the only organization in the Conference of Presidents that
endorses or raises money for political candidates through a political action committee.

Andrea Levin — executive director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, a Conference of Presidents member — said in an interview that J Street is taking positions “totally out of sync with the Jewish mainstream,” noting its opposition to a 2011 congressional letter criticizing Palestinian incitement in the wake of the Itamar massacre that killed five members of an Israeli family, and more recently, its refusal to condemn the Fatah-Hamas unity deal.

In an op-ed for last year, however, J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami called his group’s position on Israel “the same as that of the Israeli government, the Obama administration and the vast bulk of the American Jewish community.”

“At the end of the day, J Street exists to help Israel reach the deal it needs and wants so much and which is so central to its future as a Jewish state and as a democracy,” wrote Ben-Ami, referring to a two-state solution, whose achievement is central to J Street’s stated mission.

Yet Sarah Stern — president of the Washington, D.C.-based Endowment for Middle East Truth think tank and policy group — believes members of Congress are often confused about where J Street stands on Israel. She noted that J Street “has consistently taken the same positions as the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).” CAIR has been accused of being a front group for the Hamas terrorist group, and NIAC routinely takes anti-Israel positions.

“It’s hard enough for members of Congress to listen to a growing Muslim and Arab demographic, but when they have a Jewish constituency that is basically siding with the enemies of Israel, I think it’s extraordinarily deleterious for the Jewish community here in the U.S,” said Stern.

Georgetown University professor and Middle East analyst Moran Stern, meanwhile, does not believe it is particularly relevant to be asking whether or not J Street is a “mainstream” American Jewish organization.

“The surge of J Street is a fact,” he said. “What the Conference of Presidents and other Jewish organizations in the U.S. that might have conflicting views on J Street are doing, and I think are doing very wisely, is they are identifying the surge of J Street. They recognize it, and they adapt accordingly.”

Before Wednesday’s vote, a number of Conference of Presidents member groups publicly expressed their intent to support J Street’s application. Ameinu — which says it “connects liberal American Jews with a progressive Israel” — posted on Twitter: “Ameinu will vote for J Street’s inclusion in the Conf. of Presidents. They meet all of the requirements. Simple.” In a blog post for the Times of Israel, Union for Reform Judaism president Rabbi Rick Jacobs wrote that there should not be an “ideological litmus test” for joining the umbrella organization.

“If the Conference begins to limit its membership based on organizations’ views on specific policy issues, it ceases to represent the entire American Jewish community,” he wrote.

The leadership of Conservative Judaism’s congregational umbrella group echoed the call for accepting a diversity of views.

“The Conference of Presidents is designed as a forum in which the Jewish community, in all its diversity, can come together to discuss the major issues of the day and speak with world leaders and organizations as representatives of the Jewish people,” said United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick and international president Richard Skolnik.

On the flip side, the Zionist Organization of America campaigned aggressively against J Street’s bid. Ahead of the vote, ZOA distributed 18 bullet points for why it believed J Street should not be admitted to the Conference of Presidents and issued news releases slamming J Street’s statements on the Palestinian unity deal and Secretary of State John Kerry’s remark warning that Israel could become an “apartheid state.”

Reacting to criticism of Kerry’s comments, J Street had said, “Instead of putting energy into attacking Secretary Kerry, those who are upset with the secretary’s use of the term should put their energy into opposing and changing the policies that are leading Israel down this road.”

ZOA then said, “J Street has again demonstrated that it is an extremist group, hostile to Israel, by supporting Secretary of State John Kerry’s ‘apartheid’ accusation against Israel.”

Moran Stern, however, said that from his observations of the culture of U.S. Jewish organizations, he has witnessed a “reservoir” of talented and educated young American Jews among the J Street ranks and questioned the premise of abandoning that cadre of Israel advocates.

“The question is what do you do with that reservoir,” he said, explaining that leaving out J Street might “play into the hands of those who are anti-Israel because they will say, ‘Look at the Conference of Presidents that claims to be pro-Israel and pro-Jewish, and here there is a group like J Street that supports the two-state solution and all that, and when they try to be part of that club they are being denied.’”

The professor added that given J Street’s popularity on college campuses, it is important not to neglect those young American Jews who care about Israel but may have a different approach than traditional pro-Israel advocates.

“I think that while you may not accept certain ideas, J Street certainly doesn’t fall under this category,” he said. “They do not call for the one-state solution, for the destruction of Israel, for boycotting Israel. Quite on the contrary.”

But Dr. Charles Jacobs — president of Boston-based Americans for Peace and Tolerance, the group behind the new documentary “The J Street Challenge” — explained that J Street breaks a long-honored tradition between American Jews and Israel.

“[American Jews] can freely criticize Jewish leaders in Israel — we can do it publicly, but we, who do not live there or have our children on the front lines, do not have the right to use our American power to circumvent Israeli democracy and to try to lobby to get an American administration to impose our views and policies on the Israelis,” said Jacobs. “J Street’s entire program is designed to break this longstanding agreement.”

Open Borders

An Israeli passport (Wikimedia Commons)

An Israeli passport (Wikimedia Commons)

The State Department is responding to pressure from Israel’s friends on Capitol Hill and is reviewing its policy on granting tourist visas to Israeli citizens.

Julia Frifield, the department’s assist- ant secretary for legislative affairs, announced on April 17 the formation of a working group with the Department of Homeland Security and Israel’s Foreign Ministry. The working group will “help Israel move toward eligibility for the Visa Waiver Program,” Frifield wrote in response to several members of Congress.

The Visa Waiver Program was developed to allow citizens of countries within the program to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without needing to apply for a tourist visa. Israel has not been admitted to the program because the rate at which the U.S. refuses a country’s visa applications must be below 3 percent. Israel’s visa refusal rate was 9.7 percent in 2013, up from 5.4 percent in 2012. The State Department has also objected to Israeli security actions, such as preventing entry to travelers deemed security risks, it says have needlessly affected Palestinian and Arab Americans.

Frifield said the working group would strive for a “reduction of the overall refusal rate.”

“This is a goal of both the United States and Israel, and it would make travel easier for citizens of both countries,” she wrote, adding that a follow-up report will be provided in July.

An Israeli diplomat who could not speak on the record confirmed the existence of the working group to the Washington Jewish Week, saying that Israel is interested in the program and that the two countries are taking concrete steps to move the process forward. Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Ze’ev Elkin will head the Israeli delegation.

Israel’s exclusion from the visa program surprised many on the Hill, who believe that the close relationship between the two countries warrants Israel’s membership in the program.

The refusal rate has increased in recent years due in large part because U.S. consular officials responsible for approving or denying individual visa applications began looking closer at applicants considered a high risk for overstaying their tourist visa. Young Israelis, who customarily travel abroad following their military service, have drawn particular scrutiny.

According to a Jan. 25, 2010, cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv published by WikiLeaks, officials were investigating large-scale visa fraud
“in the U.S. Dead Sea cosmetics and skincare industry since 2007, when it became a noticeable problem.”

The cable went on to describe a vast underworld economy that many young Israelis have chosen to participate in to make quick money, working at mall kiosks throughout the U.S. selling “Dead Sea” products and other under-the-table jobs.

“Moreover, it is culturally acceptable for post-army Israelis to work illegally in the United States,” wrote Wendy Vincent, a consular official at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. “Aside from the criminal aspects of this fraud, a key implication is the increased visa revocation/refusal and denial of entry rates for post-army Israelis, which among other things, complicate Israel’s high-profile desire to join the Visa Waiver Program.”

Some members of Congress say that just because some Israelis came here for illegal purposes, the U.S. shouldn’t discourage others from coming. Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) is one of the legislators tackling the issue head on.

“In late February or early March, the State Department had denied that there was a problem,” she said in an email. “They asserted that 83 percent of Israelis who applied for visitor visas aged 21 to 30 received them. This was when I decided to get involved, because I felt that those numbers were not telling the whole story. So I wrote to Secretary [of State John] Kerry asking for more specific numbers. I asked for statistics of tourist visas — a subset of visitor visas — for the smaller age range of 21 to 26.”

In her letter to Kerry, Meng, a member of the Middle East subcommittee, wrote that she was concerned that the “current, apparent presumption of nefarious intent on the part of young Israelis seems unfair” and urged the department to end the practice.

Frifield’s response to Meng acknowledged the problem and said that 32 percent of visa applications by Israelis 21 to 26 were denied in 2013, up from 16 percent in 2009.

Another provision that Israel must meet is reciprocity toward all American citizens. This poses a difficult question for Israel, which has applied strict scrutiny and restrictions on visas for Palestinian and Arab Americans.

“Israel doesn’t have visa requirements for American citizens, but there has been a long history of special treatment of Arab-American citizens and that has raised strong objections by the Arab-American community,” said Philip Wilcox, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and a former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem. “I think that the U.S., for good reason, believes that American citizens are American citizens without reference to their racial, ethnic or religious origins and that all are entitled to be treated equally by foreign governments as they are here and that no stigma or suspicion should apply to those American citizens because of their ethnic origin or race.”

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on April 22 that Israeli officials said they were willing to end their restrictions on Arab Americans upon entering the waiver program.

Asked whether this was something the State Department could accept, spokeswoman Jen Psaki expressed that the department wouldn’t budge on the requirement for nations to adapt their policy prior to joining the waiver program, instead of after.

Congress does have the power to override some of the requirements and last year U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) introduced the Visa Waiver for Israel Act of 2013 that is currently being reviewed by the House Judiciary Committee.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), has also taken a strong stance against exempting Israel from the Visa Waiver Program’s standards.

“As longtime friends and allies, the United States and Israel benefit significantly from travel and tourism between the two countries,” Goodlatte wrote. “I believe that countries wishing to participate in the Visa Waiver Program must first satisfy the requirements for participation under the Immigration and Nationality Act for admittance to the program. Once Israel satisfies these requirements, I would warmly welcome their participation in the program, so that we can further bolster the strong relationship between our countries.” contributed to this story.