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Feb. 3rd, 2010

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This past Sunday the New Israel Fund held a Town Hall in Bnai Jeshurun in New York entitled LEFT AND "RIGHT": VISIONS OF SOCIAL CHANGE IN ISRAEL.  The speakers were Avrum Burg, former speaker of the Knesset; Naomi Chazan, former Meretz MK and president of NIF; Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel; and Daniel Sokatch, new CEO of NIF.  All now serve on the NIF board.  Moderator was Jane Eisner, editor of the Forward.  What follows is from my notes, points that stood out to me, certainly not a full recount of the afternoon.


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The afternoon was full of a combination of problems and determination.  Even with all the frustration, it was good to be in a hall full of people who are committed to a democratic and tolerant Israel which respects its minorities.

Oct. 29th, 2009

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A Day on "The Hill"

We had a productive day of lobbying on the Hill yesterday.  First a positive meeting with staff of Rep. John Hall(former rock star), and then briefly with the Rep himself. We asked everyone to make a statement in support of a 2 state solution and supporting Obama's active diplomacy. No one demurred.

Then we met with our Rep. Yvette Clark in the Rayburn Room in the Capitol itself(very impressive) She extended her time with us to about 40 minutes and seemed a real ally. We talked about doing a town hall in the district and reaching out to Rep. Jerry Nadler.  (Speaking with some other lobbyists later, there seemed a view from non-Jewish NYC reps that they didn't want to get too far out front of their Jewish colleagues.)  We will work with her in the future.

After a quick lunch we met with Mike Arcuri's chief of staff. He is a moderate Blue Dog Democrat who took a historically Republican district upstate. He was a banquet host because he has a personal relationship with one of the founders of J-Street. The meeting was cordial and constructive. Everyone says they favor 2 states, but there is fear and skepticism also.

Finally a larger group met with Anna Breutman(sp?), chief of staff to Sen. Gillibrand. It was also constructive. She seemed to appreciate getting a different take on Israel/Palestine.  She said that the senator was clearly and publicly supportive of the president.

There were more than 1500 attendees at the conference and 700 stayed to lobby, with more than 200 meetings scheduled. Everyone we met on the Hill was more than impressed by J-Street's organization.  I was impressed by the mix of veteran Middle East peace activists, my generation and older, and such a large number of young people.

Oct. 27th, 2009

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I've been in DC since Monday lunch time at the J-Street conference.  J-Street is an organization which teaches and lobbies for a peace resolution to the Israel/Palestine conflict, often against the official "line" of the mainstream Jewish community.  They were hoping for 1000 people, but there are more than 1500.  The sessions have mostly been great, but even better is seeing many veterans of the cause, and many young people taking up the banner.

The first plenary I attended was Rabbi Eric Yoffie from the Reform Jewish movement voicing both his agreements and disagreements with J-Street, responded to by Jeremy Ben-Ami, the head of J-Street.  Some of what Yoffie said was legitimate criticism, but some felt over the line.  Then I went to a break out session on the possible future for a Palestinian state: infrastructure and economy.  An important and difficult discussion.  The final session was of 4 members of Congress, 3 Jewish Democrats and one Louisianan of Lebanese descent.

Today I slept late, to catch up, but missed the first set of sessions.  The second set of break out sessions I did attend.  A group of Washington "insiders" talking about doing work over the years, what was hopeful and what would make him more powerful.  In the afternoon was a keynote address by Gen. James Jones, National Security Adviser, representing the administration.  He spoke about various actions the US has taken which at least deIayed ability to make an atomic weapon.  These included improving relations with Russia which is useful both in negotiations and if time comes to create multilateral sanctions.

The panels have generally been of high quality, but most important is the gathering of old and new activists.   They were planning for about 1000, but they passed 1500 by midday on Monday.  Tomorrow it's off to Capitol Hill to do some lobbying.

Jul. 6th, 2009

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Arson at Masorti(Conservative) Synagogue in Modi'in, Israel

There was a fire set in the entryway of the Masorti synagogue in Modi'in, Israel.  The metal doors kept the fire from spreading to the main building.  Less than two weeks ago a sign was put up saying the synagogue was affiliated with the Masorti movement.  It is one of the few non-Orthodox synagogues in Israel built with government financial help.

The police say it was teenage vandalism and not ideological, but they have no suspects yet, so how can they  be so sure?

Dec. 29th, 2008

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Like many of us, I am sure, I have received many messages urging me to take sides and blame either Hamas or Israel alone for the violence taking place in Gaza and vicinity.  I have resisted seeing this as a black and white issue.  To my mind, both sides have not taken any initiative in the recent cease fire period to actively engage in diplomacy to spread the peace.  Both have more or less welcomed the return to war.

Even if you see the Israeli attacks as justified, I don't see how they are going to lead to a more peaceful or even calm situation.

Of all the responses that I have seen, the one from J Street has been the most reasonable, and I have signed on to their plea to the US government to intervene to stop the violence from both sides.  I fear that the Bush administration has neither the serious desire nor the clout to exert much influence at this stage, and Obama won't be in office for another 3 weeks.

Here is a link to their statement

Nov. 23rd, 2008

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Jews Uniting to End the War and Heal America

Today I went to a conference in Manhattan on Jews Uniting to End the War and Heal America.  It was co-sponsored by the Shalom Center, the Workmen's Circle (Arbeter Ring), historically the fraternal organization of Jewish socialists in America, and "Jewish Currents," now published by the WC but historically the organ of the Jewish Communists and ex-Communists.  In general, it was a conference on "Now that Obama has one the election, what do we do now?"   It was gratifying to see several hundred people show up.

There were lots of panels and panelists, and discussion among attendees.  Some of us have been working on progressive issues for decades, and some were young activists.  There were two periods of break out sessions, and obviously I could not be at all of them.  In general there was discussion of the war(s), the Israel/Palestine conundrum, the economy and other domestic issues.  Not everyone agreed on everything.  For instance some people were for getting out of Iraq RIGHT  NOW,  if not yesterday, since we are only causing harm to them and ourselves, while others struggled on how to withdraw quickly but with minimal harm.

Several themes recurred.  The other side ("K Street", the military/industrial complex, etc.) are organizing and we must do the same.  Celebration of Obama and a community organizer ("Organizer in Chief") and hope that he would be responsive to grass roots organizing and pressure.  The need for a two state solution for the sake of Israel as well as the Palestinians.  Much discussion of the crisis in the economy, its effect on the budgets, especially of local and state governments, most of which are mandated to have balanced budgets.  OTOH, many programs we see as vital can be justified as "stimulus."  

On a personal note, I encountered MJ Rosenberg for the first time in 35 years.  When I walked in during his panel, he recognized me, but didn't know from where.  I reminded him.  I am a fan of his work and weekly column on the Middle East on the website of the Israel Policy Forum, where he is Director of Policy Analysis and runs their Washington DC office.

Sep. 22nd, 2008

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New Israel Fund Forum

On Sunday I went to the NIForum, a six hour symposium put on by the New Israel Fund on the situation in Israel: economic, social, and cultural, with emphasis of course on the work of the Fund, and of SHATIL, its empowerment and training program, as well as organizations in Israel funded by NIF.

I pay attention to events in Israel, look regularly at the Haaretz website, and somewhat less at a number of others, but I am not as tuned in as many activists.  I enjoyed a day of greater connection.

The Opening Panel had the theme "Making Change Possible," with panelists Moty Cristal, Neta Ziv, and Naomi Chazan.  Cristal teaches at Tel Aviv U and has been part of many Israeli negotiation teams with Jordan and the Palestinians.  He suggested two challenges and two assets in the current situation.  The challenges are 1) finding a balance between the needs of a civil society and the security mindset.  This is a political issue, not the responsibility of security people who naturally incline that way.  He then said that the Social/ Economic gap is even a bigger problem (not clear why this was not then a challenge).  2) is to abandon the idea of "building bridges" between "oranges" and "blues," the right and left on security/Palestinian issues, because a bridge does not bring the two banks closer, only connects them.   Rather we need to build a new space, redefine the issues, accept multiple identities, so people find ground where they can meet.  One asset is the constantly changing paradigm between Jewish communities in Israel and abroad.  We have completed phase one of Zionism, to create a stable, established state.  The second phase is to define it as Jewish which means just.  ...also increase the engagement of Jews abroad with Israel.  The second asset is the younger generation, which has new energy.   He noted the small number of younger people in the room and said we should correct that.

Neta Ziv is the director of the Cegla Clinical Law Programs at TAU.  She practiced previously as civil rights lawyer.  She said that progress has always depended on liberal democratic institutions.  She spoke about several areas of hope or challenge.  The political crisis reflects that the police are honest, not deferring to the power of the prime minister.  A serious concern regarding the Arab minority is the (temporary) change in the law not allowing Arab citizens to marry Palestinians in the territories and bring them back home.  This is a question - are Arab citizens of Israel really partners or not?  Regarding women, she is encouraged by the several high profile challenges to sexual harassment by prominent public officials.  A second challenge is the situation of the poor.  There was enthusiastic implementation of the program to move poor people from welfare to work, but often they ended up with no welfare and no work.

Naomi, former MK and incoming president of the NIF refused to predict what was going to happen with the current political crisis.  She said that prophesy has been given to children and fools.  The future is unclear, but the rise of Tzipi Livni reflects a civilianization of Israeli politics, which is encouraging - not just moving to the next general or military hero.  On the other hand, in a poll the very term "politics" creates a physical negative reaction among Israelis.  The challenge is not only to be good watch dogs, but how to empower people to be more than guardians of their leaders.  The first choice would be for more good people to go into politics, but this seems not an acceptable option to most people.  The second is to get people to Know they have the power and should use it.  They don't take this serious, so there is a disconnect between how they vote and how they really think.

Lunch was served with break out into small discussions.  I went to one with Sawson Zaher, a lawyer specializing in social and economic rights in the Arab community, a former NIF law fellow.  She spoke about various issues in that community, but also disagreed with Moty Cristal.  She does not see a balance between civil society values and the security establishment, but a deterioration of civil rights in many areas.

Lunch was followed by two sessions of panels on various subjects.  In the first period, I went to The Medium and the Message: Media and Social Impact.  The first speaker was Maya Sabatello from B'tselem.  She noted that B'tselem, which is concerned with human rights of Palestinians, works only beyond the Green Line.  She spoke primarily about the "Shooting Back" project, where they distribute video cameras to people living at hot spots to document what is going on.  She showed two clips.   One was of settlers in a new settlement area in Hebron, right up against the home of Palestinians.  It showed a settler child spitting at them and a settler woman repeatedly calling the camera woman a "whore" in Arabic.  The second clip was of an Israeli soldier at a demo against the separation wall shooting a handcuffed demonstrator, under guard, in the leg, point blank.  He was clearly ordered to do it by his commander.

The second speaker was Yvette Alberdingk Thijm of Witness.  This is a project which does similar documentation of human rights violations on a world wide basis.  She showed a video taken before the Olympics in Tibet, which was posted on their website, as well as on YouTube.

The third speaker was Eliezer Yaari, NIF executive director in Israel and former prominent TV journalist.  He spoke about the NIF long support of B'tselem.  He said this work as a question of who owns "justice."  Whose story is seen as legitimate?  The first video above delegitimated the settler movement, while the second led to a serious inquiry into the actions of the army.  He talked about the problems in TV journalism.  It used to be that priority was given to what was important.  Now it is what is "interesting."  (Israeli version of "if it bleeds, it leads.")  You must present important information in a way perceived as interesting.  He also spoke about the new project "New Voices in the Stadium", combating racism in Soccer.

The second panel I attended was What's Stand-Up Gpt tp Do With It?  Popular Culture and Social Justice.  (I can see I was drawn to cultural subjects, as opposed to hard economics or politics.)  The first speaker was Yisroel Campbell, who spoke about the value of humor to get people to think about things they would not ordinarily think about.  He spoke about his solo performances, as well as performing with contrasting performers of various types.  He was born American and gentile, and converted to Judaism three times (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox).  He is very funny, but spoke about how he raises issues by what he talks about.  One example:  "It says 39 times in the Torah to be kind to the stranger.  We suck at that!  We're really good at shatnez (not mixing wool and linen clothing)"

The second speaker was Daniel Chalfen, a documentary film maker and advisory committee member of the Other Israel Film Festival.  He spoke about the need to reach beyond the converted.  He talked about a series on You Tube on the lighter side of Arab Israeli Life.  He also spoke about raising issues of disabilities.  The final speaker was Naomi Schachter, associate directer of SHATIL.  She said pop culture was not the main venue for NIF, but it is growing.  The use of popular culture has a long history, going back to Lysistrata during the Peloponesian War.

The conference closed with several comedy and literary presentations.  For me the highlight was a presentation by Yisroel Campbell, focusing on his Israeli life.  He is really good, really funny, pretty profound.  I recommend hearing him perform, or even bringing him to your community.

May. 11th, 2008

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(no subject)

The date for the 60th anniversary of the creation of Israel was, on the Hebrew calendar, this Shabbat, May 10, but to avoid the sabbath it was moved up to Thursday, May 8.  Since I was a child, I remember knowing that I was born the same year as the State of Israel.  When I was 13 the Israeli embassy organized a gathering for all the kids who were being bar/bat mitzvah that year.

I always have some ambivalence about the day.  With all my criticism, I feel I should celebrate this day, but most observances are so uncritical and even chauvanistic that I don't want to be part of them.  This year I was glad to be part of a celebration/observance by Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, right at the Columbus Circle entrance to Central Park in Manhattan, chaired by Rabbis Ellen Lippmann and Brian Walt.    We sang, symbolically planted two trees, had a mincha service led by Rabbi Simkha Weintraub and Debbie Friedman, and Rabbi Gordon Tucker taught about the guarantees of universal human rights in the Israel Declaration of Independence.   For me it had the right balance of celebration and criticism, and I got to do it with lots of old friends.  I even saw Rabbi Leonard Beerman whom I knew from peace and progressive work when I lived in Los Angeles 30 years ago.

There is a web page about the event here.  There are links there but photos of the event are here.  I appear in a number of the photos, but I don't think I look particularly good in any of them.  The text of Rabbi Tucker's teaching as a Word document can be found here.

Saturday afternoon/evening our Havurah observed the occasion.  We ate mostly Israeli food, shared stories about our connection to Isreal and important experiences, and sang songs.
jeff, birthday

October 2013



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