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And Then There Were 44


Last week’s historic “shellacking” suffered by the Democrats was a stark and humbling reminder to all elected officials of whatever party that they serve at the will of their constituents.

While this fundamental fact is still fresh on their minds, it is imperative that our community make clear to its representatives that in exchange for our support – in votes as well as contributions – we expect reciprocal support for causes dear to our hearts. Vocal and public support for the safety and security of Israel is clearly at the top of our list.

Just fifteen months ago, on July 14, 2009, President Obama met with 15 American Jewish leaders at the White House. The purpose of that meeting was to “clear the air” regarding mounting concerns in the Jewish community that the administration was adopting an increasingly counterproductive and inappropriately harsh position with respect to Israeli settlement activity.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, suggested to Obama that diplomatic progress in the Middle East has traditionally occurred – and indeed can only occur – when there is “no daylight” between the United States and Israel. Obama reportedly responded, “I disagree; for eight years [during the George W. Bush administration] there was no light between the United States and Israel, and nothing got accomplished.”

Obama’s response jibed perfectly with the ideology of the self-described “pro-peace” organization J Street – whose founder and executive director, Jeremy Ben Ami, crowed in a message to supporters, “I left the room feeling we are at a truly historic moment of opportunity. There may never be another American President who so clearly gets the issues strategically and has the political capital to try to pull off an agreement. To succeed, I really believe J Street is going to be critical in demonstrating political support for the President and to those in Congress who support his efforts.”

Unfortunately, and in part as a result of J Street’s inclusion in the July 14 meeting, a number of politicians viewed J Street as actually representing a sizeable chunk of the Jewish community and voiced support for the organization and its initiatives. Specifically, on January 28 of this year, 54 Democratic representatives – the instantly infamous “Gaza 54″ – sent a letter to Obama indicting Israel for imposing strict restrictions on the Gaza border and inflicting “suffering” on the Palestinians. The letter, initiated by J Street, alleged that Israel was collectively punishing the people of Gaza by creating a “lack of access to: clean water, construction materials, [and] fuel” and called on the president to pressure Israel to open up its border with Gaza.

Even more damaging than the negative image of Israel portrayed in the letter was the fact that the letter represented the first official congressional attempt to paint Israel as the aggressor and the Palestinians in Gaza as the innocent, wronged party. Never mind that Israel’s actions consisted of taking minimal defensive steps to secure its borders from terrorist activities stemming from the Gaza Strip.

This inaccurate and spurious attack on Israel’s right to defend itself may have been non-binding, but it set in motion a chain of far reaching and damaging events. Six weeks after the Gaza 54 letter was made public, a visit by Vice President Biden to Israel coincided with a mid-level Israeli bureaucrat’s formal authorization of the launch of a previously approved housing project in an existing – and exclusively Jewish – Jerusalem neighborhood. The poorly timed Ramat Shlomo announcement created one of the worst diplomatic rows between the United States and Israel in decades. The atmosphere surrounding U.S.-Israel relations rapidly deteriorated. By all accounts President Obama virtually snubbed Prime Minister Netanyahu during the latter’s White House visit two weeks later.

With only muted criticism against the administration coming from Congressional Democrats, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel took out full-page ads in major American newspapers to express his support for an undivided Jerusalem. With unprecedented disrespect, J Street, through the Haaretz newspaper and former Knesset member Yossi Sarid, circulated an open letter to Wiesel taking him to task for, among other things, having been “deceived” by “zealous Jews” who insist on “inserting themselves in Arab neighborhoods, purifying and Judaizing them with the help of rich American benefactors.”

Following the Ramat Shlomo incident, J Street provided the Obama administration the political cover needed to press Israel to make major unilateral concessions in the false hope of creating an environment conducive to peace negotiations with the Palestinians. (Needless to say, the painful ten-month freeze Israel had placed on all building construction in East Jerusalem failed to bring meaningful results from the Palestinians and collectively hurt only Jews.)

The cover provided by J Street also helped embolden the administration to cast an unprecedented vote calling on Israel to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and to open its nuclear facilities to inspection.

The world took notice of America’s diplomatic abandonment of Israel and on May 31, with Netanyahu on his way to Washington to discuss the NPT with Obama, Turkey permitted the now infamous flotilla to violate the lawful Israeli naval blockade of Gaza. As feared by Hoenlein and Wiesel, the incessant public pressure put on Israel by the Obama administration had indeed created daylight between the two allies. The international community quickly labeled Israel’s defensive move against the flotilla an act of “aggression” and Netanyahu was forced to cancel his critical meeting with Obama in order to return to Israel to address the incident and its fallout.

Now, fifteen months after that White House meeting with Jewish leaders and despite the best efforts of J Street, the American people have spoken and the political climate has changed dramatically. The president and his party have been greatly weakened and have little political capital to expend promoting counterproductive approaches to addressing the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Ten of the 54 signatories of the Gaza letter – nearly 20 percent – have either retracted their support or retired or been retired by their constituents at the ballot box. While there certainly were other major domestic factors at play in the midterm elections, elected officials – including the president – should take note that supporting the fringe views of J Street yielded a very poor return.

Now is the time to remind our representatives that January’s Gaza letter was unacceptable and represented neither the view of the American Jewish community nor, in fact, the view of the general American public. We must take advantage of the current political climate and insist that in exchange for our past and future support, our elected officials do more than publicly proclaim vague support for Israel. They must forcefully defend Israel’s right to exist and the actions it is forced to take in protecting itself and safeguarding its future.

Chaskel Bennett is a community activist. He can be contacted at chaskelbennett@gmail.com.

About the Author: Chaskel Bennett is a writer, respected activist and member of the Board of Trustees of Agudath Israel of America. He can be contacted at chaskelbennett@gmail.com.


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