The annual Jewish Community Relations Council Congressional Breakfast is an opportunity for members of the New York Congressional Delegation to break bread – and munch bagels – with Jewish leaders. The 2012 edition had a distinctly serious tone. An overflow audience of more than 300 – religious and political leaders, public officials and diplomats – listened to a series of concise, fact filled presentations detailing Congressional activity that will impact both on community life and international actions, with special concentration on Israel and Iran related topics.
Presented by the JCRC-NY in conjunction with UJA-Federation, the 33rd annual meeting was an opportunity to express camaraderie and admiration, discuss relevant social and political action, remember history and serve as a forum for discussion of passed and pending legislation and anticipated effects. JCRC-NY Vice President Mimi Alperin and Board Members Ester Fuchs and Jonathan Greenspun chaired the event with Alisa Robbins Doctoroff, Chair of the Board of UJA-Federation of New York. Jeff Weinstein provided sponsorship.
The January 22 event revealed a range of approaches to developing solutions to domestic and economic challenges. Recognition of the need to contain Iranian nuclear capability and the need to continue to support a strong Israel were universally stated.
In a style reminiscent of the pulpit, Representative Edolphus Towns promised “We’re all squarely and solidly behind the State of Israel.” He noted the strong cooperation between the Black and Jewish communities, and spoke of his first trip to Israel, thirty years ago. Remembering the open handed support of the Jewish community throughout the years – “If there is anything we can do, let us know” – Towns offered his open support “if there is anything that I can do, let me know.”
Jewish conservative activist Abe Biderman introduced recently elected Congressman Robert Turner, who recently returned from Israel. Said Turner, in Israel there is an “odd feeling of optimism and confidence despite problems.” “There is a red line: the Israelis have been facing an existential threat from Iran.” Said Turner “We are ratcheting up the embargo; Congress is putting very difficult sanctions in place which are working.”
Turner said he “is skeptical” about President Obama‘s “personal letter to the Iranians seeking reconciliations and peace talks” saying he thinks the “Iranians see this as a way to buy time.” Speaking about election year 2012, the representative called it “the most important election of his life, (which) will determine the direction of this country for many years to come.”
The memory of Sally Goodgold, the much beloved Jewish and civic community activist who died in 2011, was recalled several times during the event, with special warmth by friend and colleague Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who called Goodgold “an outstanding leader.” Maloney discussed the events of 2011, including the Palestinian Authority’s attempt to gain recognition in the United Nations. They “choose political theater over negotiations. They lost,” She said.
The administration, she said has been “outspoken” in its opposition to the PA’s backdoor attempts. As a result of the legislation that stopped US funding of UNESCO after it seated the Palestinian Authority, the PA “has dropped efforts to gain recognition in 16 United Nations organizations.”
Maloney said she was “deeply concerned about Egypt,” and is actively involved in the effort to deny funding to the new rulers “if they do not keep the peace treaty.” Noting that she had recently viewed “Iron Dome” installations, she said “technology is effective, it is saving lives.” She also noted the 2011 include homecoming of Gilad Shalit.
Turning to activities in her Upper East Side district, the long serving Congresswoman applauded the Cornell University-Technion partnership. “So exciting! It will grow jobs,” she stated. The Congresswoman noted that efforts to secure the Congressional Medal of Honor for Rabbi Arthur Schneier were actively underway.
Calling Michael Miller “my brother,” Congressman Gregory Meeks of Queens said “we are all God’s children. We have to stand for those who stand for the human race….Michael, my brother,” he continued, “I love you.”
Meeks discussed efforts to secure a Congressional Medal of Honor for Raoul Wallenberg who “saved so many Jewish lives at the risk of- in fact losing – his own life.” On dealing with Iran, Meeks said sanctions “must be tightened up” and allies must be held accountable. Leaders must do the “collective work to make sure Iran does not have a nuclear bomb” (and) need to understand they “can’t mess with our friend Israel.” He berated himself for not giving children – including his own – better understanding of the enduring partnership between the Black and Jewish communities, speaking about the Freedom Riders and the “special connection” to the Jewish community: “children must be the ones who speak against anti-Semitism.”
With the experience of one who has “been there,” former nurse Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy recalled the swiftness with which life can dramatically change – whether by illness or job loss or bullet. “My job is still taking care of people.” She concentrated that any budget cuts in the domestic agenda must “not hit any vital organs.” Stressing the need for education, McCarthy said “every child can learn and should have that opportunity.” “We, as Americans, will be bigger and better than ever before.”
“The relationship between Israel and the American people is solid. We will be there for the people of Israel….They have the same values: freedom, democracy, wanting to have their children feel safe.” The Congresswoman demanded that the Palestinian Authority maintain its agreements or lose the right to have a Washington, DC office. The PA she said must “not try to go through the back door to be recognized as a state.” “A line needs to be drawn in the sand: we are willing to work with you… but don’t push us in the face; don’t insult our intelligence (we) will not be spat upon in the face. We as a nation should stand up for our friend Israel.”
Bronx Congresswoman Nita Lowey brought both humor and insight. The Israel relationship, she said “is absolutely critical – an important commitment.” The ranking member and former Appropriations’ Committee member spoke of the “beauty of appropriations” which allotted 3.075 billion dollars to Israel in 2011.
Concerning the action of the Palestinian Authority, Lowey said Abbas “cannot go to the UN again – not the Security Council nor the General Assembly – and work towards membership. That is absolutely unacceptable. If he does that, the PLO office will be closed.” The appropriations bill is an “excellent vehicle to send a clear message.”
The Congresswoman reminded that government “has a responsibility to help people ignite the American dream – to help people help themselves.” In the international arena, Lowey outlined three demands of our allies. First, it is essential that “nobody (in Europe) backs off on the sanctions; a nuclear Iran would be devastating.” Second, stopping the proliferation of weapons in Gaza and Lebanon, and, three, great care in dealing with the Palestinian Authority which “even after 64 years still has the view that Israel is not a legitimate state. It will be a long hard road, she said. Gradually the number of Palestinians s who accept a two state solution may grow.”
Senator Charles Schumer said sanctions against Iran “are really biting…Economic sanctions really work.” Said the Senator “Iran’s people want economic advancement which they do not have with the “brutal, not free, regime.” Schumer said sanctions were “stopping advancement.” The “military option is always on the table.” The Senator, in 2011 had said “I worry…” about the direction Egypt might take: In 2012, with an Islamist government taking power, the reasons for his concern are clear.
Although unable to attend because of family obligations, the support of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was conveyed by Senator Schumer.
JCRC Board member Janet Shorenstein introduced Congressman Jerrold Nadler, an ardent supporter of Israel, as a man with “a heart, a head, a soul and saichel (good sense).” The Congressman did not disappoint. He presented an analysis of the evolution of political parties saying they “change over time.” The Democratic Party which he said “has become liberal on social issues… has become considerably more conservative on economic issues.” In the last twenty years, said Nadler “Republicans have gotten far more conservative on both economic and social issues.”
Nadler indicated the challenges inherent in the 2012 election – suggesting it “will determine fundamental questions” about the direction government will take. “Do we want to maintain a New Deal consensus or not?” he asked. “Republican candidates seem to believe that what used to be consensus is wrong” and have placed Major government programs, labor unions, the Department of Education and many things under attack. “What used to be consensus is no longer consensus.”
Nadler said that the deficit issue is not the prime concern “right now” and that he would agree to a higher deficit for the short run to create more jobs. “We have to get the economy running again – if we got unemployment to 5%, that would reduce the deficit by 40%.” Nadler suggested that the 15 trillion dollar debt resulted from tax cuts for the wealthy and the cost of two wars. He railed against cuts in the non-defense discretionary spending budget, which has had no real increase since 2001.
“We are borrowing money at a negative rate. Now is the time to borrow!”
On the Middle East, he said “issues of the settlements and specific policy disagreements between the United States and Israel are irrelevant. No real productive negotiations are on the horizon; the Palestinians have used settlements and borders as an excuse.” “Palestinians do not want to recognize Israel.” He referred to offers made by Israel in 2000 and 2008 most conditions were met. Still, “they said no, and made no a counter offer.” Until they are willing to be candied, there will be no negotiations. We must maintain Israel’s strength, oppose attempts to de-legitimatize Israel and oppose Iran.
Congressman Crowley questioned the possibility of peace in the Middle East: If you believe Israel has the right to exist, then you can engage in a negotiation.
“The best defense is to be strong as a nation within a vigorous economy.”
Rep. Eliot Engel continued the theme of the morning, saying the United States should aid Israel to be “stronger.” He discussed his efforts to let all who enter his office know “conditions between the United States and Israel are unbroken and will always remain that way.”