Inside the GA

ByHAYLEY MUNGUIA
November 10, 2013 11:50

Meet some of the leading lights of the American Jewish community, currently in Jerusalem for the general assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America.




Michael Gelman

Michael Gelman 370. (photo credit:Courtesy Jewish Federations)

From last Friday until November 12, Jerusalem will be flooded with Jews from all over the world, coming to participate in the Jewish Agency annual meet, and the general assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, which begins immediately afterward. The JFNA has had general assemblies for over 80 years, usually hosted somewhere in North America (past sites have included Baltimore, Denver, New Orleans and Washington, D.C.), but meets every five years in Jerusalem. The General Assembly aims to bring together Jews from across America, to discuss issues facing Israel and the global Jewish community. To mark the event, some of North America’s Jewish leaders talk to the Jerusalem Post about how they see some of the biggest issues facing Israel.

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David J. Butler

David J. Butler is a member of the Executive Committee of JFNA. He is an active member of Washington’s Jewish community, where he has served as President of Kemp Mill Synagogue, President of Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy, treasurer of the Jewish Community Relations Council, and currently serves as a Trustee at the United Jewish Endowment Fund and a member of the Philanthropic Fund Advisory Committee, as well as counsel to Hillel: the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and special litigation counsel to the Orthodox Union.

Do you think the US is sufficiently involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks?

I don’t know. While it is clear that under Secretary Kerry, the US has done a lot more than anyone else to bring the two sides together, there is very little indication about exactly what is going on. As a result, it is difficult to get a real sense of the extent of US involvement, beyond the successful effort to bring the parties together.

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Israel says the settlements in the West Bank are not an impediment to the peace process, while the US has made it clear that it holds the opposite perspective. Which do you think is correct?

I do not believe that settlements are a real impediment to peace talks. Every demand or condition of a party to a negotiation can be viewed as an “impediment.” All it really is, is an issue that needs to be discussed in negotiations.

Do you agree with the Obama administration's stance on waiting to increase sanctions on Iran in order to give negotiations a better chance of success?

No. Sanctions have clearly had an effect on Iran. They appear to have brought Iran to the table. But the purpose for the sanctions is not to bring Iran to the negotiating table. Their purpose is force Iran to abandon her nuclear ambitions. Why stop (or hold back on) a successful program before achieving the intended result?

The Women of the Wall have been gaining increasing Israeli and international attention. What do you think is the solution to the ongoing dispute?

The Women of the Wall dispute is only one part of a larger concern regarding civil society in Israel, and the need to loosen the stranglehold of the ultra-Orthodox in matters of personal "status" issues and personal observance in Israel. Women should be permitted to pray at the Kotel as they choose, just as men should be permitted to have an array of prayer services at the Kotel – not just orthodox services and observances. The solution is to redefine the role of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, and to take them out of total control of Jewish personal status issues.

What's your favorite thing about Israel?

My favorite thing about Israel is that it’s my home away from home, and a welcoming home to all members of the Jewish people. Warts and all, it’s part of my Jewish family.

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Jay Sanderson

Jay Sanderson is President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. He has held a wide array of media positions, including CEO and executive producer of the Jewish Television Network. He also worked as creator and executive producer of the series “The Jewish Americans” for PBS and the genocide documentary, “Worse Than War.” Sanderson was named on the 2011 “Forward 50”.

Do you think the US is sufficiently involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks?

As the leader of the Los Angeles Jewish community, I deeply appreciate the United States’ tremendous support for the State of Israel and the unbreakable bond between the US and Israel. It is not a question of whether the US is “sufficiently involved”. The question is “Is the US/Israel relationship as strong as it needs to be to promote a positive and constructive process?”, and I believe the answer is yes.

Israel says the settlements in the West Bank are not an impediment to the peace process, while the US has made it clear that it holds the opposite perspective. Which do you think is correct?

I believe that the process should proceed without any preconditions leading to two states with Israel as a sovereign, protected Jewish State.

Do you agree with the Obama administration's stance on waiting to increase sanctions on Iran in order to give negotiations a better chance of success?

We know enough to judge a country by its actions rather than by its rhetoric. Given the actions of Iran, we shouldn’t wait to increase sanctions. They’re clearly working. That’s why there seems to not be a change so far. I don’t believe in negotiations in situations like this one. When you negotiate, you take away all of your leverage.

The Women of the Wall have been gaining increasing Israeli and international attention. What do you think is the solution to the ongoing dispute?

Women praying at the Wall is a symptom of a bigger challenge, the challenge of being a pluralistic society with Judaism at its core. Israel needs to be a Jewish State open and welcoming to all Jews where Jews of all denominations and from all backgrounds have equal rights and equal access.

What's your favorite thing about Israel?

Israel is core to who I am as a Jew and central to my work as a leader in the Jewish world. I love Israel and I have many favorite things, although I do need an immediate shwarma and hummus fix as soon as my feet touch the ground.

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Michael Gelman

Michael Gelman is the immediate past chair of the JFNA's executive committee. He has also served as past president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the board of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He currently serves on the boards of The Israel Project, where he was the inaugural chair, Hillel International and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Together with his wife, Susie Gelman, he is chairing the GA in Israel, a role they previously took on in 2003.

Do you think the US is sufficiently involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks?

I do think that the US is sufficiently involved with the peace talks. The problem is that neither side seems willing to accept compromises. Much of this is because of the various coalitions that both Abbas and Netanyahu have to cater to. Demands by the Palestinians for the right of return, severing Jerusalem, etc., are very thorny issues for Israelis to deal with.

Israel says the settlements in the West Bank are not an impediment to the peace process, while the US has made it clear that it holds the opposite perspective. Which do you think is correct?

Keeping certain contiguous settlements and in the Jordan Valley are difficult issues for the Palestinians to accept. There needs to be more willingness to compromise. There have been suggestions by thought leaders in the US that there may be 70/30 or 80/20% solutions. That would leave either 70-80% of settlers in place (mostly in contiguous settlements) in exchange for land swaps. This seems reasonable to me. I think that Kerry is doing the best he can in an impossible situation. I am not optimistic, though.

Do you agree with the Obama administration's stance on waiting to increase sanctions on Iran in order to give negotiations a better chance of success?

I do not agree with the Obama administration’s stance on waiting to increase sanctions on Iran. We should continue to increase the economic pressure on the Iranians. [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani, in my view, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. His “outreach” to the US, in my opinion, is a sweet-talking attempt to buy time. In any case, it will be [Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei who will make any decisions on this issue for the Iranians, not Rouhani. Sanctions brought Iran to the table, and any show of weakness or immediate compromise will encourage Iran to continue their efforts to build a nuclear weapon. They will not take the US seriously. After Obama decided not to bomb Syria, I became very concerned about his willingness to use military force to stop Iran. I am very worried about this situation.

The Women of the Wall have been gaining increasing Israeli and international attention. What do you think is the solution to the ongoing dispute?

I believe that there should be equal access to the Wall for all Jews. Early photos show both men and women praying in the same space. The situation at the Wall, however, is only a microcosm of the real problem. That is, what I refer to as the “tyranny of the minority,” too much control over personal issues by the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate.

Israel is the only democracy in the world that does not have freedom of marriage. More than 20% of Israelis are going overseas to marry. That is an untenable situation. The most recent law that loosens municipal control over marriages really changes nothing. Part of that law now makes it a crime (up to two years in jail) for a rabbi that is not recognized by the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate to perform a wedding in Israel and the same law applies to the bride and groom. Why did they need that law when Israel does not recognize those marriages in Israel anyway?

The ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate will continue to drive Israelis further and further away from Judaism and will drive a wedge between Israel and the Diaspora. Ultimately it could become a security issue as well. It is estimated that within two generations, 50% of American Jews will not be considered halachically Jewish according to the Rabbinate. This could threaten US support for Israel as American Jews become less committed to Israeli’s safety. It’s just one more thing to worry about.

What's your favorite thing about Israel?

I love the people of Israel. They wear their emotions on their sleeves, and I really like knowing where one stands. Israelis are very welcoming and hospitable. I also love the desert. I believe that Susie may have mentioned that in her remarks.

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Susie Gelman

Susie Gelman is the North American Co-Chair of the JFNA’s 2013 General Assembly. Her past involvement with the JFNA includes serving three terms as president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington; she also has been a longtime board member of JFNA and co-chair of UJC (now JFNA) Israel. Outside of the JFNA, she has remained involved with both the national Jewish community and the local community of Washington, D.C. by serving as the Inaugural Chair of the Birthright Israel Foundation and president of Georgetown Day School board of trustees. She co-chaired the Jewish Foundation Advisory Council and has received both the Jerome J. Dick Young Leadership Award and the JCC of Greater Washington’s Benjamin Ourisman Award for Civic Achievement.

Do you think the US is sufficiently involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks?

My impression is that the US is highly involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. As I understand it, for the past several months, the negotiator for the US, Martin Indyk, whom I respect greatly, has been frequently meeting with both sides. I think the fact that for the most part the negotiations are taking place quietly, outside of the headlines, is a good thing. In addition, Secretary of State John Kerry has traveled numerous times to Israel. So, I think that the commitment of the United States to achieving a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is undeniably strong.

Israel says the settlements in the West Bank are not an impediment to the peace process, while the US has made it clear that it holds the opposite perspective. Which do you think is correct?

I believe that continued building of settlements is an impediment to the peace process. While any ultimate agreement would have to take into account roughly 80% of the existing settlements—as President Obama made clear in his remarks about '67 borders, with land swaps—continuing to build ‘facts on the ground’ that do not demonstrate good faith on the part of Israel and make an eventual peace agreement harder to attain, are not helpful steps, in my view.

Do you agree with the Obama administration's stance on waiting to increase sanctions on Iran in order to give negotiations a better chance of success?

I'm no expert on diplomatic negotiations, so it's difficult for me to say what is the right strategy regarding negations with Iran. On the one hand, Iran cannot be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. That is an absolute. I share the skepticism in Israel about whether or not the Iranians can be trusted, even in the course of these negotiations. As for economic sanctions, it seems pretty clear that the sanctions are what forced Iran to the negotiating table in the first place. I think the US should keep the pressure on Iran through sanctions, even as it attempts to negotiate a deal with the Iranians.

The Women of the Wall have been gaining increasing Israeli and international attention. What do you think is the solution to the ongoing dispute?

I remember the first years of visiting Israel, in the early ‘70s, when the Western Wall plaza was one large expanse with no mechitza. Somehow, everyone was able to pray in his or her own way then without offending others. Over time, I have personally experienced how the women's side has gotten smaller and smaller and how restrictive the situation at the Wall has become for women. I support the goals of Women of the Wall and would hope that a solution can be found that is respectful of all styles of worship. The dispute about access to the Kotel is really a symptom of a much larger issue facing Israel and the Diaspora, namely equal treatment of and respect for all branches of Judaism. Currently, the religious practices of 85% of Diaspora Jews (and a growing number of Israeli Jews) are not recognized in Israel. That situation has got to change.

What's your favorite thing about Israel?

My favorite thing about Israel is actually two things — my son, who made aliyah in 2006, and my son-in-law, who married my son in summer 2012. And of course I love the produce, which tastes better than anywhere else on earth, and the pita bread, which I have sometimes brought back with me to the States! But in terms of a favorite part of Israel - it's the Negev desert. My husband and I hike and camp out there every time we visit Israel - it's just an amazing place, overwhelming in its vastness, its silence, and its beauty. I find it to be an incredibly spiritual experience.

Abe Foxman

Abraham H. Foxman, is the director of the Anti-Defamation League, and a leader in the fight against anti-Semitism and discrimination. Foxman is the author and co-author of a series of books dealing with anti-Semitism in the modern age. He was a member of the President’s United States Holocaust Memorial Council under Reagan, Bush Snr. and Clinton, and is a frequent contributor to the Jerusalem Post and other international news organizations.

Do you think the US is sufficiently involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks?

The US is more than sufficiently involved in the peace process. Israel needs peace for its own interests and well-being and should vigorously pursue it. However, in the midst of immediate crises with Iran and Syria, I'd prefer that the US show greater strength and leadership on those issues than on the peace talks, mainly because I still don't see Palestinian willingness to make the critical decisions.

Israel says the settlements in the West Bank are not an impediment to the peace process, while the US has made it clear that it holds the opposite perspective. Which do you think is correct?

I never believed settlements were an impediment to peace. In fact, an incentive for Palestinians to move forward on peace is that only through a peace agreement can the settlement issue be resolved. Remember that both [former prime ministers Ehud] Barak and [Ehud] Olmert offered to dismantle significant numbers of settlements in exchange for peace. Sharon dismantled all the settlements in Gaza - The result was not peace. From 1948 to 1967 there were no settlements at all - and no peace. So settlements are an excuse for no progress, not the reason

Having said that, if one believer in a two-state solution, as I do, then Israel should be thinking and planning about a future without many of the settlements.

Do you agree with the Obama administration's stance on waiting to increase sanctions on Iran in order to give negotiations a better chance of success?

The issue as to whether to increase sanctions now on Iran is a side point. The real challenge, as a proposal is on the table, is whether we maintain the strong sanctions that have brought Iran to the table. The Iranians have lied and cheated on the nuclear issue and granting them early sanction relief will encourage more of the same rather than a fundamental Iranian decision, which is needed, to abandon the nuclear project.  If Iran is unwilling to go forward, I would then urge even stronger sanctions.

The Women of the Wall have been gaining increasing Israeli and international attention. What do you think is the solution to the ongoing dispute?

The right of other denominations than the Orthodox to pray at the Western Wall as they see fit needs to be respected.  Solutions, such as the southern side of the Wall, can be found and implemented. There needs to be sensitivity for the beliefs of others on all sides. If we had that, practical solutions are attainable.

What's your favorite thing about Israel?

My favorite thing about Israel is the people - their remarkable passion and perseverance in the face of unrelenting challenges.

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