J Street Flexes Its Muscle and Others React As New Congresswoman Steps Into the Fray

Road Trip: Rep. Donna Edwards (left), a Maryland Democrat, talks with a resident of Sderot on her recent trip to Israel and Gaza.
OFFICE OF REP. DONNA EDWARDS
Road Trip: Rep. Donna Edwards (left), a Maryland Democrat, talks with a resident of Sderot on her recent trip to Israel and Gaza.

By Nathan Guttman

Published July 08, 2009, issue of July 17, 2009.
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At a town hall meeting in late June in suburban Maryland, Rep. Donna Edwards’s tight rope walk was on full display.

Edwards had come to White Oak Middle School to speak with the gathered crowd about her recent trip to Israel and Gaza. She wanted to defend herself against criticism that she has been too harsh on Israel, but at the same time, she wanted to leave herself with the option of candidly discussing Israel’s conduct. During a lengthy slideshow, she spoke of the suffering she saw in both Gaza and Sderot, Israel and stressed the need for an open discussion in the United States on resolving the conflict.

“I wish that both the kind of spirited debate and interchange that I think takes place in Israel all the time would actually take place here in the United States,” she said after describing a heated discussion she witnessed in the Knesset during her visit.

Edwards has attempted the difficult task of openly talking about Israel while remaining close to the large Jewish constituency in her district. She has not always succeeded with the more hawkish members of the pro-Israel community. Edwards’s positions, though, have won her support from the left wing of the organized Jewish community, including, most importantly, the dovish pro-Israel lobby J Street. Through its political fundraising arm, JStreetPAC, the group put out an unusual e-mail appeal June 2 and managed to raise $30,000 for Edwards’s next campaign within days.

Edwards told the Forward that she has tried to approach her work on the Middle East as a “process of discussion.”

“I was never under the impression that there is a monolith of the Jewish community,” Edwards said.

Edwards, 51, is the first black woman to represent Maryland in Congress. She was elected in 2008 in a special election, and shortly after that she was re-elected for her first full term. Her district is in the Washington suburbs, and 15% of the voters in the district are Jewish, according to a local pollster.

A few local Jewish leaders have been critical of Edwards ever since she refused to support a House resolution January 9 that backed Israel during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Edwards says that she voted “present” because she opposed Hamas’s rocket fire into Israel but did not support Israel’s bombing of civilian targets.

Jewish criticism of Edwards grew when she held her first town hall meeting on Israel. The February 26 event at Prince George’s Community College included speakers from pro-Palestinian groups and others known for their dovish views, with no representation of any mainstream major Jewish or pro-Israeli group.

One of Edwards’s leading critics has been Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. In an interview, he said, “I’m not saying Donna Edwards is anti-Israel, but I am saying the Jewish community is concerned with the pattern in which the congresswoman adopts the Palestinian narrative and does not look for the Israeli narrative.”

Talking to the Forward, Edwards commented: “I might have done a better job in reaching out and explaining my views,” but she added that her critics also could have done better in reaching out to her.

Shortly after criticism of Edwards surfaced in June, J Street stepped in to assist the embattled congresswoman.

J Street’s executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, said that the unusual emergency drive, launched in a political off-year, was meant to send a message to any possible primary challenger who might think that trouble with the Jewish community could spell a chance for unseating Edwards.

Ben-Ami, who said he believes that local hawkish Jewish leaders were behind the criticism, said that his group intends to be “responsive” in case others try “to rattle” members of Congress because of their views on the Middle East.

“We will be there for those who are under attack,” he said.

In a video greeting posted on YouTube on June 14, Edwards thanked J Street and promised to spread the word on Capitol Hill.

“Pro-Israel pro-peace members of Congress like me will have the financial support we need to stand up strongly for the values and principles we share with you,” she said in the video.

But for some Jewish leaders in the region, the embrace of J Street by Edwards is part of the problem, not the solution. Halber said that Edwards’s involvement with J Street “bothers many” in the community. He argues that Edwards ought to be open to all views in the mainstream Jewish community.

“She adopted these views without having a chance to be educated on the issues,” Halber said.

The issue was raised again in a June 23 meeting at Edwards’s congressional office. She invited several local rabbis, as well as a lay leader from the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee and representatives of Jewish peace groups, to discuss her views on Israel. In her opening remarks, Edwards acknowledged, according to participants, that she “has a problem” with the Jewish community. She said she wants to take care of that problem.

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md., said that, in the meeting, he tried to make clear “that AIPAC represents the broad consensus of the Jewish community, and J Street doesn’t.”

Weinblatt, who also heads the Rabbinical Assembly’s Israel advocacy arm, said after the meeting that he was convinced of Edwards’s interest in improving relations with the Jewish community.

“I haven’t given up hope,” he said. He added that if there is no significant change in her attitude, “members of the Jewish community could look for someone who is more supportive.”

Even within the local organized Jewish community, though, some leaders think that Edwards has evoked an overreaction. Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said that referring to Edwards as a “problem” is a mistake. “She is not an enemy,” he said. “She is a friend, and friends sometimes give advice we are not happy to hear.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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