Crying Gevald on Capitol Hill

By | Feb 14, 2022
Jewish Politics & Power, Latest
Deborah Lipstadt

Jewish politics and power

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1. Jews on the Hill

Last Tuesday provided a rare split-screen moment for those following Jewish advocacy on Capitol Hill. Over at the Senate, the Foreign Relations Committee held a long-awaited hearing for professor Deborah Lipstadt, President Biden’s nominee for the State Department’s next special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. At exactly the same time, on the House side, Charlie Cytron-Walker, the rabbi taken hostage last month at his synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, and Eric Fingerhut, head of the Jewish Federations of North America, made a plea to a Homeland Security Committee panel to increase funding for the government’s nonprofit security grant program that helps Jewish institutions, among others, make needed security upgrades to deal with hostile attacks and terrorism. Both hearings were fascinating and provided an invaluable perspective on the Jewish community’s political savviness.

Lipstadt’s hearing had been delayed for nearly seven months by Republicans, who were dismayed at her past tweets criticizing their actions—and in particular, one that seemingly accused Senator Ron Johnson, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, of white supremacy. Lipstadt endured an unpleasant grilling by Johnson during the hearing, but she seemed to have won over most other Republicans on the committee with her direct and enthusiastic pledge to use the position to fight rising tides of antisemitism across the world.

For the organized Jewish community, which fought tirelessly to get Lipsdadt her day on the Hill, this was a victorious moment, proof that these groups could convince both sides that fighting antisemitism supercedes partisan divides.

The Homeland Security Committee hearing was a success of a different kind. Lawmakers seemed to be genuinely convinced that doubling funding for synagogue security to $380 million is a worthy cause. The nonprofit security grants, which started off as a tiny budget item, is now a major program with significant funding, enjoying extensive support on both sides of the political aisle.

So, was last Tuesday a show of force for the organized Jewish community?

In many senses, it was.

But it is also legitimate to feel a bit uneasy when flipping between the livestreams of both committee hearings, both focused on the danger of antisemitism and the threats facing Jews. In other words, it would be nice if Jewish interests were taken into account, not only when catastrophe hits and activists rush to the Hill for a heartful (and well-received) communal cry of gevald.

2. Is the U.S. really doing enough to fight antisemitism?

Lipstadt, if and when confirmed, will be the Biden administration’s top official dealing with antisemitism, even though her official portfolio limits her mandate to dealing with the problem overseas, not in America.

Homeland security grants will help synagogues and Jewish institutions fortify their buildings and train personnel to deal with threats when they emerge.

Tough words from President Biden, who launched his presidential campaign with the pledge to fight extremism, are also an important measure.

But is that enough?

A new paper, written by former Obama adviser Scott Lasensky and published by the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, takes a close look at what all U.S. government branches can do to help counter the rise in antisemitism.

Recommendations include setting up an inter-agency mechanism at the White House to coordinate work on the issue, expanding Biden’s use of his “bully pulpit” to speak out (Biden has yet to give an address on antisemitism) and establishing federal education guidelines for studying the Holocaust and antisemitism, among many other suggestions.

“Chief among the potential measures the Biden administration could take,” Lasensky concludes, “is improving coordination and defining a comprehensive national policy against antisemitism. Moreover, using the considerable powers of the White House to depoliticize the issue and restore bipartisanship would have substantial impact.”

The recommendations may come across as bureaucratic, in the government sense of the term, but taken together, they paint a picture of a president whose heart is in the right place and who is clearly committed to fighting antisemitism. But at the same time has not taken simple—and at times obvious—measures to turn this commitment into action.

3. Time for the non-government players to take center stage

In the world of U.S.-Israel relations, there are some issues that never change: Iran, foreign aid and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But for the past year, the latter issue has all but dropped off the agenda. True, the U.S. makes sure to pay lip service to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by stating the need to advance peace and by the occasional protest of Israeli settlement activity. But for all intents and purposes, the Biden administration has shelved the topic.

The decision to pivot away from dealing with the Palestinian issue as a defining conflict in the region stems from Biden’s belief that given the makeup of the current Israeli government, the policies of the Palestinian leadership, and the overall relative calm, there’s no use in spending political capital on yet another longshot American attempt to bring peace to the Middle East.

The Bennett government in Israel couldn’t be happier with this approach. Any U.S. attempt to broker an agreement would likely end up with Bennett’s fragile coalition, made up of everything from hard-right settlers to left-of-center liberals and Islamic politicians, falling apart.

Entering into this void are non-government actors seeking to promote their outside-the-box ideas for resolving the conflict. The latest is a group led by former Israeli Justice minister and peace negotiator Yossi Beilin. The group, made up of three Israelis and three Palestinians, met last week with top State Department officials and Washington think tank scholars to present their Holy Land Confederation idea.

At its core, the plan, which is laid out in a book carrying the same title, seeks to provide a creative response to two of the most vexing issues that have dogged past negotiations: the future of Jewish settlers currently living in the West Bank, and the feeling among Palestinians that their national narrative has been ignored in previous peace plans. According to the proposed plan, which has not been endorsed by the Israeli or the Palestinian governments, a negotiated two-state solution would be followed by the establishment of a confederation between the two independent states, in which a limited number of citizens of either state would be allowed to live in the other as permanent residents. The plan also makes an effort to explore both the Israeli and the Palestinian narratives and their historical context in order to allow for a future accord that recognizes the stories of both people.

Beilin is the first to acknowledge the limits of non-governmental initiatives in promoting policy shifts—especially in the current climate, where both sides seem reluctant to take any step toward peace. But he is a veteran peacemaker who was part of the Oslo Accords, which started off as a non-governmental initiative; he is also a cocreator of the Geneva Initiative, which he believes eventually drove the Ariel Sharon government to withdraw from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Beilin values the power of presenting ideas that can provoke dialogue and perhaps turn into agreed-upon principles further down the road. 

4. A growing sense of frustration

Beilin said response in the administration to the confederation initiative was welcoming and that the American interlocutors were curious about the idea. “We encountered no cynicism whatsoever,” he said.

And this welcoming approach represents more than simple politeness.

Several Israeli officials and non-government activists who had been in touch with the Biden administration’s Middle East team said they had noticed a real sense of frustration among U.S. officials dealing with the region. 

On the one hand, all seem to agree with Biden’s belief that launching a major peace effort right now would be futile, likely backfiring and achieving no progress. On the other hand, they also feel that the lack of an active peace initiative will end up with Israelis and Palestinians sliding further away from each other, making a future peace deal even less likely.

“They want to do something constructive, but they don’t know what to do,” was the impression one Israeli official got after meeting top American government counterparts several months ago.

5. Winds of war

Events on the Ukraine-Russia front are moving fast—and in a scary direction. As of Monday, the fear of a Russian invasion seems more real than ever before, with chances of avoiding war quickly dissipating.

Here are a few points to keep an eye on, from our little corner:

  • What will a Russian invasion of Ukraine mean for Israel? Israel prides itself on maintaining close working relations with Vladimir Putin—relations that have proven essential for its security in Russian-controlled Syria. What happens now? Can Israel keep up this relationship even if Putin initiates what is bound to be Europe’s most traumatic war in decades?
  • What about the wave of Ukrainian refugees likely to flood the world if Russia invades? Will this be the moment in which the American Jewish community takes back its historic role as the key advocate for opening America’s gates to refugee resettlement?
  • Ukraine has a significant Jewish population, estimated at 150,000 to 200,000. How can the American Jewish community reach out and help them?
  • And what will it mean politically? Will we see an emergence of a Jewish-supported neocon-like faction calling for America to take military action to save Ukraine?

One thought on “Crying Gevald on Capitol Hill

  1. Davida Brown says:

    Many are helping Jewish Ukrainians relocate to Israel at this time; one would think a wise decision based on past experiences in previous European conflicts. The international Fellowship of Christians and Jews comes to mind in this regard. President Biden’s administration is also wise to not tamper with the present political climate in Israel. Given the futility of the past attempts, we can agree! Our world is fragile and doing nothing (not to be confused with appeasement) is sometimes better than doing the wrong thing.

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