Relations councils press for ‘civility’ at annual gathering

Relations councils press for ‘civility’ at annual gathering

Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, addresses the annual Jewish Council for Public Affairs Plenum in Washington, March 6. Photo courtesy JCPA
Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, addresses the annual Jewish Council for Public Affairs Plenum in Washington, March 6. Photo courtesy JCPA

Representatives of the Community Relations Committee of MetroWest took part in the annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, where a main focus was the maintaining of civility in public discourse when American Jews disagree on Israel-related issues.

Among the delegates to the gathering, held March 5-8 in Washington, were MetroWest CRC chair David Lentz, regional CRC director Joy Kurland, and MetroWest CRC associate director Melanie Roth Gorelick, who served as a panelist at a workshop on International Human Rights and Jewish Communal Responsibility.

The plenum drew delegates from community relations councils and national advocacy groups across the United States to talk about American-Jewish public policy priorities.

Organizers said the focus was on showing that while there are substantive differences within the Jewish community, particularly regarding Israel, it’s possible to discuss them without rancor.

“Civility is not avoiding uncomfortable conversations; it’s our respect for the dignity of other people and careful listening,” said JCPA vice president Ethan Felson.

Sessions featured some traditional opposites: Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and a doyen of liberalism, joined James Woolsey, a neoconservative icon and former CIA director, in discussion. And Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of The Israel Project, faced off against author Peter Beinart, who argued in a controversial essay last year that reflective defense of Israel in the public sphere is alienating Jewish youngsters.

Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, addressed the widening gap between the Israeli and American Jewish communities. It is critical, said Oren, who grew up in West Orange, to overcome what can seem like “unbridgeable schisms” between Israelis and Americans.

Valerie Jarrett, President Barack Obama’s top domestic policy adviser, who revealed in her address that her great-grandfather was Jewish, suggested that tensions over Israel between organized Jewish groups and the Obama administration were overstated.

‘Stand with Israel’

In her March 6 workshop, Gorelick spoke about the MetroWest Stop Iran Now campaign and the work of the NJ Coalition Responds to the Crisis in Darfur.

She stressed the importance of engaging closely with the international human rights community, which presents an opportunity to reach out to organizations concerned about “women’s rights violations in Iran and the use of rape as a war tactic in Sudan, as well as working with the trade unions, interfaith organizations, and local colleges….”

Working with human rights organizations can also help overcome their initial hostility about working to stop Iran’s nuclear program that stems from their having “misinformation on what was happening in Israel” and on the perception “that Israel is a major violator of human rights….”

“As the assaults on Israel’s legitimacy increase in the U.S.,” Gorelick said, “we need to ensure that these groups have truthful and accurate information. We need them to speak up and stand with Israel. This can only happen with dialogue and our showing respect and caring for the important work that they are doing on issues around the world beyond just Israel.”

On March 8, the NJ delegation — which included representatives of the CRCs of South Jersey, Monmouth, and Northern NJ as well as lay volunteers — visited with Sen. Robert Menendez. The NNJ and MetroWest contingent went to the offices of Rep. Scott Garrett (R-Dist. 5) and Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Dist. 8), where they met with legislative aides. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-Dist. 7) attended the congressional reception held on Capitol Hill.

Ron Kampeas of JTA contributed to this article.

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