|Rabbi David-Seth Kirschner and the Rev. Oscar King III led the convocation. Photo courtesy AIPAC|
Reaction to President Obama’s speech on the part of delegates from Northern New Jersey to the annual AIPAC Policy Conference this week was mixed – but North Jerseyans were united in their approval of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks Monday evening.
About 30 New Jerseyans gathered for drinks in the lobby of the Capital Hilton hotel two blocks north of the White House Sunday evening in what has become a yearly tradition. Many area residents came to the conference as part of a delegation led by Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, religious leader of Temple Emanu-El in Closter, who led the convocation preceding Netanyahu’s remarks Monday night alongside the Rev. Oscar King III, a Baptist minister from Detroit.
The local residents gathered at the Hilton spoke with enthusiasm about the experience of attending the conference along with thousands of Israel-supporters from across the U.S. and the world.
But some seemed troubled by what they view as the heavy nature of the President’s demands on Israel compared to what he is asking of the Palestinians, as reflected in Obama’s Sunday morning address to the conference.
Linda Scherzer of Closter, former CNN correspondent, expressed her concerns to this reporter.
“I appreciated his clarifying the speech he gave [May 19] but I’m still troubled by his failure to demand accountability from the other side,” she said. “Had the speech been made 15 years ago, I would not have had a problem with it as a starting point. I used to work for CNN and I was left-of-center, but watching the way history has unfolded over 15 years makes it difficult to hear these demands being placed on Israel without demanding accountability of Palestinian leadership.”
“He tried to soften the blow [in this speech at AIPAC] by saying we are going to make territorial exchanges, but to say what he did up front gives a lot of ammunition to the Palestinian government,” said Terry Linefsky of Mahwah, a member of Glen Rock Jewish Center.
Several area residents said the president’s speech was eloquent, but questioned whether its vision can be realized without more substantive change in the Arab world.
“Eloquent as Obama is, it doesn’t matter,” said Jill Janowski of Cresskill, who traveled to the conference with her husband Joseph as part of Temple Emanu-El’s group. “The only way you can really effect a long-lasting change is if it comes from the bottom up…. children in Arab countries are being educated to hate. They are repressed, and only when they have an opportunity … will they reach for something more.”
Janowski also expressed doubt about whether moderate Palestinians have the power to execute the president’s vision even if they want to.
“My concerns are that the parties you have to negotiate with can’t execute it,” Janowski said. “Israel is a divided country, and on the other side [Abbas’] government is now aligned with a criminal organization [Hamas].”
Other New Jerseyans, however, reacted positively to the president’s speech.
“I liked it,” said Judy Lebson of Tenafly, who traveled to Washington for the conference with her husband Martin. “He was voicing his support for being there [for Israel] if something happens.” She added that Obama allowed for the possibility of changes on the ground in determining a peace agreement.
“There was a line that said, based on the realities of the situation today, [that] might alter a formal agreement.”
Martin Lebson said he appreciated the president’s clarification of his remarks regarding the 1967 borders.
The Lebsons and others praised Kirshner for building up AIPAC’s northern New Jersey contingent.
“Rabbi Kirshner is a rock star,” said Lee Igel of Edgewater, a professor of management at New York University who traveled to the conference with Temple Emanu-El’s contingent.
“He is young, he is bright, he is like the Pied Piper and we all follow him,” said Judy Lebson of Kirshner, who in his convocation preceding Netanyahu’s speech stood alongside Rev. King. The two clergymen spoke of the “unity of opposites,” a classical ideal that refers to people of different outward appearances who hold congruent beliefs. Together they evoked the memories of slain civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, murdered in 1964 in Mississippi for their efforts to register black voters. They also spoke about the biblical friendships between Jonathan and David and Naomi and Ruth, as well as the friendship between U.S. President Harry Truman and Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.
Together they addressed the conference: “Tonight, 46 years after Selma, this black Baptist minister from Detroit and this not so black Conservative rabbi from New Jersey stand at this podium in full realization of our history and our future….Whether we are Republican or Democrat, white or black, Jewish or Christian, believers or non-believers, tonight, we in this room are all united by our commitment to this precious land of the United States and the sacred land of Israel.”