Jewish Leaders Shamefully Silent

A Wary Oval Office Snubs Rabbis

Julia Goldman - The Forward (NY) - March 16, 2001

Justice4JP Note

Silence Signifies Consent...And Shame for the Jewish Community

Although American Jewish leaders brought a "broad range of Jewish concerns" to their first meeting with President Bush, the desperate plight Jonathan Pollard serving his 16th year of an unjust life sentence was not on the list. In fact, not a single Jewish leader - including those who shamelessly lobbied for a pardon for fugitive financier Marc Rich - even mentioned the name of Jonathan Pollard at this meeting with the President.

A press release issued by the Conference of Presidents in the wake of the Clinton tainted pardons scandal declared the Conference's disappointment that Jonathan Pollard was not released and stated: "We will continue our efforts with the Bush administration and hope that the new president will take this under serious consideration." Consistent with their silence during all of their White House meetings for the last 8 years, the Conference of Presidents once again did not bring up the Pollard issue with the President. Pray tell, why should the President "take this issue under serious consideration", if none of the good Jews he meets ever even mentions it?

Wary Oval Office Snubs Rabbis

President Bush held his first White House meeting with leaders of Jewish communal organizations last week, but the heads of the nation's two largest Jewish denominations were left off the guest list.

While leaders of two Orthodox groups joined colleagues from a half-dozen non-religious Jewish organizations at the March 7 parley, the Reform and Conservative movements were conspicuously missing.

The slight raises questions about access to the Bush White House. Some observers suggested that the guest list reflected a desire by Mr. Bush to meet with groups that have backed him. Whatever Mr. Bush's reasoning, the guest list is being taken as a sign of who's up and who's down in Washington.

"The president wants to talk to people who are supportive," said the head of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Rabbi Eric Yoffie. "The Orthodox Union is. We're not."

Several attendees said that representatives of the non-religious Jewish groups voiced the views of the Reform and Conservative movements. They included American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, B'nai B'rith International, Hadassah and United Jewish Communities.

Most attendees interviewed by the Forward downplayed the significance of the two liberal movements being left out. "I don't think we should read too much into these things," said one participant, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "They wanted to keep it small," he said.

In addition to the community groups present, nine representatives of the Republican Jewish Coalition took part, according to the group's executive director Matthew Brooks.

The two Orthodox groups represented, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and Agudath Israel of America, are strong supporters of parts of Mr. Bush's domestic agenda, including school vouchers and faith-based social services, with both reaching out to Mr. Bush even before his inauguration. The Reform movement has been a vocal opponent of both policies.

Less clear was the reason for excluding the Conservative movement, which has not taken a position on the contested issues. "We did notice that we weren't there and that other groups were there," said the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Jerome Epstein. "Our issue is trying to figure out if this is a one-time occurrence" or "a deliberate decision."

Some 75% of American Jews consistently identify themselves in surveys as Reform or Conservative Jews, and roughly 10% as Orthodox.

Other groups that were not invited to the Washington gathering — including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an association of Jewish community relations councils, and the National Council of Jewish Women — have expressed disappointment at being left out.

Neither the White House press office nor the president's liaison to the Jewish community, Adam Goldman, who was present at the March 7 exchange, would comment on the meeting or how the invitees were selected.

A onetime Republican White House liaison to the Jewish community, Jacob Stein, who is a former president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said he was surprised that the Conservative movement had not been included in the meeting. Since the discussion addressed issues of faith-based funding and social welfare, he said, "I would have thought they would have the full spectrum" of Jewish religious organizations.

Mr. Bush devoted much of the meeting, which lasted nearly an hour, to the Middle East.

The president "could not have been stronger in every reference" to Israel, said Mr. Hoenlein, whose group, a coalition of 54 national organizations, is often seen in Washington as the main voice of organized American Jews.

Mr. Bush discussed his policy of dual containment toward Iran and Iraq, and he spoke of the need to check the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East and to build strategic alliances with moderate nations in the region, several participants said. He also argued for the development of a missile-defense system.

Several of those present noted the president's evident willingness to consider divergent points of view and his familiarity with a broad range of Jewish concerns, from the threat of Iranian-sponsored terrorism to the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which would require employers to accommodate needs of religious employees.

The chief executive officer of United Jewish Communities, Stephen Solender, said he cautioned the president on changing tax policy, urging him to maintain tax incentives that encourage charitable donations, because "our social services are so dependent on those contributions."

Rabbi David Zweibel, Aguda's executive vice president for government and public affairs, defended the president's guest list and said the non-religious groups adequately reflected Reform and Conservative viewpoints. On the other hand, he said, if Mr. Bush were to have left out the Orthodox, it would have been "a misportrayal of the American Jewish community."

See Also:
  • Conference Was Told Agencies Would Not Oppose Pollard Clemency
  • Pollard Not on Jewish Leaders Agenda
  • The Clemency Page