Jewish Groups Talk Up Domestic Concerns With Obama Team

By Nathan Guttman

Published December 24, 2008, issue of January 02, 2009.
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Washington — The recent eviction of Israeli Jewish settlers from a contested building in Hebron has provoked a loud. After years of concentrating on foreign policy issues, American Jewish groups are looking to return to their historic focus on domestic policy when lobbying the new administration.

A December 18 meeting in Washington between representatives of 29 Jewish groups and the incoming Obama administration’s transition team made this shift visible, as the Jewish groups presented an agenda divided evenly among concerns regarding Israel’s security, with an attempt to make the community’s voice heard on issues relating to the economy and social services.

The meeting also marked a new, if somewhat forced, unity, with the Obama team bringing in a wide spectrum of Jewish groups and allowing each to have its say. From the right came groups as hawkish as the Zionist Organization of America and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs; from the left, the new dovish group J Street and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, a grass-roots peace organization. This was a sight not seen during the current administration.

“One of the hallmarks of the Bush administration was that they never really cast the broad net to reach out to the Jewish community,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “They used invitations to meetings and events as rewards doled out to their friends.”

Noticeably absent was the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the national umbrella group on policy issues, established as the central address for administration officials seeking dialogue with the Jewish community. Malcolm Hoenlein, the group’s executive vice chairman, told JTA that the Presidents Conference was invited but could not attend, as it does not have a representative in Washington.

Members of the Obama transition team were, according to participants, “in listening mode” and did not provide much information about the president-elect’s intentions once he arrives in Washington. For many of the Jewish representatives around the table, this was not the first encounter with the transition team. Jewish groups have been invited to share their views in other meetings on such topics as immigration, health care and the faith-based initiative.

The two-hour discussion touched on a variety of issues rarely raised with the Bush administration, including poverty, hunger, civil liberties and energy independence. “It was great that they had real serious domestic policy people at the meeting,” said Hadar Susskind, Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Domestic issues have taken center stage in Jewish activism over the past year, due to the economic downturn and the difficulty supporting social services within the community. The Jewish community depends heavily on federal participation to provide housing for the elderly, help for at-risk youth, and a variety of services to assist the poor and needy. Programs providing health insurance for children were cut in recent years, and other federally funded programs have been underfunded.

The focus on domestic issues, according to one of the meeting’s participants, reflects not only economic concerns, but also the broad agreement that Jewish groups and the incoming Democratic administration have on social issues. Although no promises were even hinted at during the meeting, community representatives left with the feeling that change is on the way.

“I’ve been working in Washington for 25 years under four presidents, and for me this was the most remarkable event,” said Sammie Moshenberg, Washington director of the National Council of Jewish Women. “The openness and genuine effort to reach out to all sectors is really an important sign.”

Moshenberg’s group was among those who rarely saw the inside of the White House during the Bush years. The administration usually sent members of its national security team to brief Jewish leaders on current events relating to the Middle East and refrained from discussing domestic issues.

Still, some conservative-leaning Jewish organizations did find an open door at the White House. Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s director of public policy, said that his group had “excellent communication” with the Bush administration and also with the Obama team. The O.U. supported Bush’s expansion of faith-based initiatives but disagreed with the administration’s initial stand on stem-cell research.

The list of groups invited to attend the meeting reflected the rise of new faces in the Jewish lobbying scene, including The Israel Project, a group dedicated to improving Israel’s image in the press, and Jewish Funds for Justice. The only local group to sit around the table was one from Chicago — home of the president-elect — the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

In accordance with the new spirit of post-partisanship, most Jewish leaders attending the meeting stressed the broad consensus within the community.

Still, some friction was noticeable when the discussion touched on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Several speakers told the Obama team that both in Israel and within the American Jewish community there is support for a two-state solution. Morton Klein, national president of the ZOA, took issue with this claim, arguing that Israelis are actually opposed to a Palestinian state. This debate, however, did not reflect the general spirit of the meeting.






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