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US, Jewish, and Israeli Leaders Gather in DC for JCPA Plenum
Plenum 2011 a Success
Israeli Ambassador Oren Addresses the JCPA Plenum
While “civility” was the watchword at this week’s JCPA Plenum in Washington, DC, it fails to capture the warmth of the conference as U.S., Jewish, and Israeli leaders joined us to discuss Israel, bullying, the labor movement, energy security, community, and even some surprising family history. We were pleased to honor Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) with the Chernin Award and Paul Berger and Debra Berger z”l with the Chair’s Tikun Olam Award.  Now as Plenum delegates return home, we reflect on our few days together of learning and policy development. Over the past few days the breadth of the community relations field was on display, from our Israel advocacy work, to inter-group relations, to government relations.  

Israeli Ambassador Oren offered our first plenary address with an overview of the sometimes-uneasy relationship between U.S. and Israeli Jews.  He reflected on American Jewry’s deep connection to Israel and its relationship to our Judaism; a statement which reinforced Rabbi Gutow’s opening remarks that defending Israel is central to Judaism. And defending Israel is crucial as Israel faces an uncertain future. Oren said that while Israel is proud to be the only functioning democracy in the region, she would rather be one of many.  That said, the current dynamics and brisk pace of change in the region also poses risks. If democratic transitions occur without openness and tolerance, he warned, Israel could end up with more neighbors like those in Gaza, Lebanon, and Iran.

Israel’s own tolerance and openness was discussed in one of the Plenum’s most anticipated sessions. Author Peter Beinart, The Israel Project’s Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, and Hillel President Wayne Firestone sat with William Daroff to debate the topic of Beinart’s controversial essay, how to engage the next generation of Israel advocates. The debate was often heated. Mizrahi challenged Beinart to focus on all of Israel’s positive political impacts and policies, and not solely on the negatives.  Beinart insisted that support for Israel is based on fidelity to the values in its founding documents, not the government. He warned that if Israel does not live up to those values, American Jewry faces the danger of a new generation of anti-Zionist Jews. Despite the differences, though, all speakers praised the JCPA’s Civility Campaign for helping to set the tone and allow such a debate to occur.

At a special session with President Obama’s closest advisor, Valerie Jarrett, she reinforced President Obama’s commitment safety and security of the Jewish State of Israel. Jarrett also praised the JCPA for our friendship with the White House, and our leadership on important issues. Speaking for President Obama, Jarrett said that the hard work by JCPA in Washington and our CRC’s in communities all across the country, was instrumental in ensuring that the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and a new child nutrition bill were signed into law.  She also shared with us a bit of her own personal history and how she learned that her great-grandfather was Jewish during a Passover seder. You can watch Valerie Jarrett’s entire speech on C-SPAN.org. 

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka reinforced Jarrett’s comments about Israel and our shared American priorities.  In a special tribute and discussion, Trumka reflected on the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and the work still ahead to improve labor rights for all, but began by reemphasizing the strong support for Israel from American labor groups like AFL-CIO who led protests against the movement to delegitimize Israel through boycotts, divestment, and sanctions.

Though Israel remains a central component of our advocacy, our agenda is wide and engagement is deep.  Speaking to Plenum delegates on Capitol Hill, Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL)--one of five Senators and a dozen members of the House of Representatives who spoke to the JCPA delegates--noted our many overlapping interests including civil rights protections for the gay and lesbian community, energy policy, and the security of Israel.  He encouraged the JCPA and Plenum delegates to build on our current partnership with bills like the Employment Nondiscrimination Act.

Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) joined Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center and former CIA Director Jim Woolsey to discuss the nexus of energy and environmental policy. All three panelists stressed that we have to take the environmental and national security impacts of our energy use seriously. The impacts of the changes in the Middle East are already being felt at gas pumps here, said Klobuchar. If we do not enact legislation soon, agreed Rabbi Saperstein, then rising temperatures will cause climate refugees, pandemics, food shortages, and resource wars. The solutions are out there though, the panel agreed; many coming from Israel. New sources of renewable energy and clean technology, said Woolsey, will mean less money going overseas to help fund the madrasas which foster and teach anti-American extremism. C-SPAN aired the panel discussion live. You can watch it online here.

In a conversation with Rev. Dr. Katharine Henderson, President of the Auburn Seminary, Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN) agreed that hyperbolic language to detract from Israel, like calling it an apartheid state, is untrue and unhelpful. Israel’s democracy is, in fact, a rarity in the region, and many of Israel’s enemies would still prefer a trial there than in any of Israel’s authoritarian neighbors. But the conversation needs more than rhetorical support. What’s needed is a real effort to bring both sides back to the table. In discussing Israel, as well as other issues both foreign and domestic, Ellison said that we need civility and that bad speech must be drowned out by good speech. The conversation with Ellison was taped by C-SPAN and can be watched online here.

We hoped to model civility at this year’s Plenum in our range of discussions and during our policy formulation at the annual resolutions session. This is a rare opportunity to develop consensus policy on behalf of the organized American Jewish community.  This year, Plenum approved resolutions on: the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process; Prevention of and Response to Genocide and Other Mass Atrocities; Preserving Birthright Citizenship under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; Immigration Enforcement; Youth Bullying; Elections; and Senior Poverty.

The Plenum was a success with hundreds of delegates from communities around the country. We look forward to seeing you at the next Plenum in Detroit, May 2012.

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