Hannah Rosenthal starts with a stumble
12/28/2009 - 09:43
James Besser

I've always admired Hannah Rosenthal. When she was executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), she brought a new energy and edginess to a group that was having a hard time finding its identity in a changing Jewish world and a strong, consistent dedication to  progressive Jewish politics – which is where a majority of Jews remain, despite persistent claims to the contrary.

So I'm even more mystified than most by her recent gaffe.

What she did was label Israeli Amb. Michael Oren's harsh criticism of  J Street, the pro-peace process political action committee and lobby group, as “most unfortunate.”  Rosenthal was an early J Street supporter and served on its advisory board. (Read the entire Ha'aretz interview here).

This blog has raised questions about Oren's J Street focus, which seems to suggest a desire to shrink the pro-Israel tent rather than expand it and which risks alienating a substantial portion of a still-progressive Jewish community here.

But Rosenthal now has the appellation “Amb.” attached to her name; as the State Department's special envoy on anti-Semitism, she is now a diplomat, not an activist.  Although she has a specialized job, she is part of a diplomatic establishment whose goal is to further U.S. foreign policy interests, one of which is maintaining close relations with critical U.S. allies like Israel.

Her comments can only undercut her credibility with Jewish leaders already wary because of her J Street connections and diminish her standing internationally.  They will also heap new fuel on the fires raging around J Street, a group the pro-Israel establishment continues to try to marginalize.

This doesn't excuse Oren's comments, which strike me as just as undiplomatic, but for different reasons.  Israel's ambassador traditionally serves a dual function – representing Israel to both the U.S. government and the American Jewish community. And that means the whole Jewish community, not just one faction.

And no, I'm not defending J Street's positions; (keep those cards and letters coming, folks).  Suggesting the American Jewish community is politically diverse, but remains strongly liberal isn't a defense of the group, it's fact. And arguing that a strong Jewish community needs open debate about critical issues doesn't mean I'm a card carrying member of J Street (the only society whose card I carry is the Social Security Administration).

The State Department wasn't amused by her  comments.  Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman had this to say in a statement:

“The Department of State values its close relationship with Ambassador Michael Oren and his staff at the Embassy of Israel in Washington. The United States and Israel enjoy extraordinarily close ties based on shared values, interests, and history, as well as the deep bonds between the Israeli people and the American people. Ambassador Oren plays an indispensable role in maintaining and strengthening our relationship through his day to day interaction with the Administration and Congress on issues of vital importance to both countries and his vigorous outreach to Americans of all origins and points of view.”

My guess: Rosenthal, one of the smartest people in Jewish life these days, probably learned her lesson and won't repeat the mistake.  But it wasn't a great way to begin her tenure as a diplomat.

 

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