J Street, JCPA launch conferences grappling with Jewish advocacy under Trump

J Street

WASHINGTON (JTA) — J Street, the liberal Middle East policy group, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the public policy umbrella for Jewish community councils around the country, launched annual conferences in Washington that each focused on challenges to Jewish activism during the Trump administration.

J Street’s adversarial relationship to the new administration was explicit in its programming, while the JCPA was not so blunt, but agendas for both conferences, running Sunday through Tuesday, indicated a rough transition from the Obama administration, which was largely friendly to the aims of both groups.

Both conferences include sessions dedicated to advancing the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; President Donald Trump has said he is agnostic about the outcome, reversing 15 years of U.S. policy favoring two states as a final status arrangement.

The JCPA program focused on civil rights, particularly criminal justice reform. Panelists at sessions on Sunday morning spoke of their fears that the Trump administration would reverse Obama reforms, including greater oversight of community policing.

Panels at both conferences spotlighted Islamophobia, or hostility to Muslims, while J Street also had panels on refugees and JCPA on immigration rights. Trump has come under fire for his attacks on Muslims during his campaign and for banning entry to refugees and to travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries once he became president.

JCPA ran two separate sessions in sequence on Sunday on advocacy under Trump, one with figures in and out of the Jewish community who are among Trump’s sharpest critics and the next with figures, representing the Emergency Committee for Israel and the Republican Jewish Coalition, who support his agenda.

In addition to an array of Jewish groups that come under the JCPA umbrella, there were guest speakers at the conference representing groups that also are aligned against aspects of the Trump agenda, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Immigration Law Center and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

J Street made no bones about its oppositional agenda, with one training session entitled “Fighting for Our Future; Harnessing our Power in the Age of Trump.” On Saturday night, in a pre-conference event, J Street U, the group’s university affiliate, marched on the White House, for, it said on its Twitter feed, “peace, democracy & an end to rising Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.”

Speakers at J Street include some of the Trump administration’s most outspoken critics, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who lost last year’s Democratic primaries to Hillary Clinton; Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., Clinton’s vice presidential pick; Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives and top Obama administration Middle East officials. Also appearing are Israeli opposition and government figures; and Saeb Erekat, the top Palestinian Authority negotiator.

Jeremy Ben Ami, the J Street president, said Trump’s policies necessitated a broader agenda for the group, which had until recently focused more on Middle East issues, advocating for the Obama administration’s peace policies and the Iran nuclear deal. That advocacy often makes the group the target of criticism by larger Jewish organizations, who object to its frequent criticism of Israeli government policies.

“There are some really important fights ahead on foreign policy, on Israel, on the Iran deal, on Palestinians, on Israel at the United Nations,” Ben-Ami said Sunday at a briefing for reporters. “But there are also issues we haven’t related to as J Street, which we will, like refugees, immigration and Islamophobia.”

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At Las Vegas confab, Republican Jews find reasons to like Trump

LAS VEGAS (JTA) — Republican Jews have President Donald Trump to thank for their party’s renewed dominance of Washington politics. So what do they think of him?

Marlyn Appelbaum paused to contemplate the question at the opening of the Republican Jewish Coalition’s confab at the Venetian resort hotel in Las Vegas Friday evening. Then, she avoided mentioning the president.

“My biggest thing is pro-Israel,” said Appelbaum, the head of a teacher training institute in Sugar Land, Texas. “I was real upset at the last eight years. I think things for Israel are going to turn around.”

Her answer captured the vibe at the RJC’s annual two-day Leadership Meeting. Amid giddy celebration of the end of the Obama years and the advent of a new Republican administration, RJC officials and members seemed to make an effort to get excited about Trump, with whom their group has a fraught history.

Vice President Mike Pence, center, takes the stage with his wife Karen Pence, right, after they were introduced by former Vice President Dick Cheney, left, at the Republican Jewish Coalition annual leadership meeting, Friday, Feb. 24, 2017, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

By contrast, US Vice President Mike Pence, one of the pro-Israel community’s closest friends, was greeted effusively at the event, where he addressed the crowd.

Michael Epstein, an RJC board member emceeing Friday’s dinner, delivered a dreams-come-true welcoming speech: “For the first time in RJC history we have a sitting Republican vice president sitting with us for our Shabbat dinner!” Epstein announced after Pence’s speech. The crowd erupted in applause.

“And a Republican president who is going to make our country great again!” Epstein added. Only a couple tables in the corner clapped.

Still, “Make America Great Again” kippahs dotted the Venetian’s byways, and Elliot Lauer, a board member perhaps best known as Jonathan Pollard’s lawyer, delivered a dvar Torah Friday evening in which he likened Trump’s victory to the triumph of the Jews in ancient Persia celebrated on Purim.

Asked about Trump, RJC members clad in bespoke suits and flowing gowns highlighted his political effectiveness.

“He did say things that were offensive,” said Robert Lewit, a retired psychiatrist from Florida who in the Republican primaries supported Marco Rubio, his state’s US senator. But “he’s innately a brilliant politician, making immigration an issue, advocating for a US economic revival.”

Though unimpressed by Trump’s star turn on “The Apprentice” reality show, Lewit’s wife, Jane, said, “No one saw what he saw: the forgotten man,” a reference to Trump’s appeal to working and middle class Americans. “In any case, it’s better than what was. I happen to have had a total antipathy for our last president, and everything he stood for.”

It has been a rocky road for the RJC and Trump. At the group’s presidential candidates’ forum in December 2015, Trump mocked the wealthy Jewish donors by saying he too was rich and so immune to their purchasing power. He also said he would be “neutral” on brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace and refused to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

In this Dec. 3, 2015, photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Forum in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Then there were Trump’s affronts to minorities, like Muslims and Hispanics, which did not sit well with a Republican constituency that has in recent years spearheaded calls for the party to be more inclusive. And when Trump appeared last spring hesitant to disavow his burgeoning support from the “alt-right,” a loose grouping of anti-establishment conservatives that includes within its ranks unabashed anti-Semites, the RJC went dark.

The group hardly issued statements mentioning Trump. None of its events at the Republican National Convention in July were open to the press — in contrast with the group’s high profile in past years. Its get-out-the-vote drive barely mentioned Trump and focused on vulnerable GOP senators in states with large Jewish communities. And even its inauguration party last month was closed to the media.

US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during a joint press conference at the White House in Washington, DC on February 15, 2017. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

Now, the RJC is trying hard to get behind the president. Trump’s pivot from his “neutrality” on Israel in 2015 to an eager embrace earlier this month of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – and his policies on the Palestinians and Iran — have helped the RJC belatedly come around.

“There was not a consensus [on the RJC board],” said Elliott Broidy, a venture capitalist who was among about a dozen of the 50 or so board members who backed Trump prior to his nomination. “Even when he was our presumptive nominee. Over time, people became more supportive. Now that he’s president, there’s deeper support on the board.”

Fred Zeidman, another board member who is close to former President George W. Bush and could never quite bring himself to endorse Trump during the presidential campaign, said it was incumbent on all Republicans to make sure government works now that the GOP is in control of all its levers.

“I have a vested interest in making this White House a success,” said the Houston-area businessman.

Asked by journalists Friday about Trump’s most recent Jewish controversies — including the White House’s omission of reference to the Jews in a statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which was widely criticized by Jewish groups, including the RJC — the group’s director Matt Brooks talked about Israel.

Matt Brooks, director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. (Screen capture: YouTube)

“There’s a professional complaining class in the Jewish community that will criticize and attack Donald Trump no matter what he says,” Brooks said. “People who genuinely have an open mind, individuals and organizations, see he is following through on commitments he made on campaign, he is repositioning in a positive way the US-Israel relationship.”

Brooks also pointed to the vice president. “He’s a terrific partner to President Trump, you have a terrific team with the both of them.”

In his speech, Pence too vouched for Trump’s pro-Israel bone fides. “If the world knows nothing else, it will know this: America stands with Israel,” he said.

“We told the ayatollahs of Iran they should check the calendar, there’s a new president in the Oval Office. President Trump will never allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, this is my solemn promise to you.”

Pence also described his recent visit to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany, where a Holocaust survivor gave him a tour. The crowd was clearly moved.

In one ballroom of the Venetian, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-California), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who has defended the Trump White House from allegations it is covering up Russian interference in the elections, pleaded with RJC members to have the president’s back, according to people who were present. Boris Epshteyn, a top White House aide who is emblematic of an emerging vocal minority among Republican Jews who have adopted the alt-right’s confrontational style, made a similar pitch in another ballroom.

Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate who owns the Venetian and who contributed tens of millions to the effort to elect Trump, had a private meeting with Pence prior to his speech. At Trump’s inauguration, Adelson and his wife, Miriam, were accorded a rare honor to political donors, appearing on the capitol’s dais for the swearing-in.

Despite his access, Sheldon Adelson’s hoped-for administration officials have been waylaid: Former US House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Elliott Abrams, a mandarin in the Reagan and the George W. Bush administrations, are all on the outside looking in.

Casino magnate Sheldon G. Adelson in attendance at the 4th Annual Champions Of Jewish Values International Awards Gala at Marriott Marquis Times Square on May 5, 2016 in New York City. (Steve Mack/Getty Images via JTA)

Seen as responsible for freezing them out is Chief White House Strategist Steve Bannon, a hero of the alt-right and the bane of neoconservatism, an interventionist outlook that many Republican Jews still support.

But RJC members were able to hold up their Jewish representatives in government, however few. Rep. David Kustoff, the freshman from Tennessee, joked, in an easy drawl, that “Jewish Republicans in the House grew by 100 percent,” with him joining Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-New York.

Eric Greitens, the steel-jawed Missouri governor, described how he rallied a diverse community this week to help clean up a vandalized St. Louis area Jewish graveyard, an effort joined at the last minute, by none other than the vice president. Pence called out inspiration over a bullhorn. Pence stood on the back of a pick-up truck. Pence wielded a rake.

Anita Feigenbaum, executive director at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery speaks to the crowd on February 22, 2017 in University City, Missouri. Governor Eric Greitens (R) and US Vice President Mike Pence (L) were on hand to speak to over 300 volunteers who helped cleanup after the recent vandalism. (Michael Thomas/Getty Images/AFP Photo)

Greitens, having depicted a sweaty, intense Pence, getting down and dirty for the Jews, finally got around to Trump.

“The president had called me earlier that day,” Greitens said. “He said, tell the people of Missouri that we stand with them in the fight against anti-Semitism.”

Peru president, son of Jewish refugee, tells Trump he prefers ‘bridges to walls’

The president of Peru, whose father was a Jewish refugee who fled the Nazis, told US President Donald Trump during a visit at the White House that he prefers “bridges to walls.”

Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, born in Lima to a French Protestant mother and German Jewish father who fled the Nazis in 1933, gave Trump a gentle rebuke over his controversial proposal to build a wall along the border with Mexico, reported the Washington Post.

Kuczynski on Friday became the first Latin American president to visit Trump in Washington.

The US-educated former Wall Street banker, who renounced his American citizenship to run for Peru’s presidency last June, took a strong stand against Trump’s “America First” agenda while many in the region remain silent.

Kuczynski, 78, told Trump he was interested in the free movement of people — “legally,” he emphasized — and also spoke about trade and economic development, reported the Post.

Earlier this month, Kuczynski thanked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for barring entrance to Peru’s fugitive ex-president, Alejandro Toledo, whose wife holds Israeli citizenship, until he settled his affairs over corruption charges.

Kuczynski harshly criticized Trump during the US presidential campaign, joking he would cut diplomatic relations with the US “with a saw” if Trump followed through on his pledge to build a wall with Mexico, which he compared to the Berlin Wall. On Friday, he made a point of saying “we prefer bridges to walls.”

Peru’s former president, Alan Garcia, once slammed Kuczynski for not having “a single gram of Peruvian blood. He has Polish, Jewish, French, but Peruvian zero.” A former Peruvian ambassador to Washington declared: “Can I have confidence in this guy? He’s old, his parents were European, his wife’s American, his kids live in the States.”

Ex-Iranian president Ahmadinejad pens letter to Trump

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s former hard-line president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent a letter Sunday to US President Donald Trump, striking a somewhat conciliatory tone while applauding immigration to America and saying it shows “the contemporary US belongs to all nations.”

It isn’t the first dispatch sent by Ahmadinejad, who has counted US presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama among his pen pals.

But this letter, weighing in at over 3,500 words, comes as criticism of Trump over his travel ban affecting seven Muslim-majority countries including Iran mounts in Tehran. It also may serve to burnish Ahmadinejad’s image domestically after the nation’s supreme leader warned him not to run in Iran’s upcoming May presidential election.

In the letter, published by Iranian media outlets, Ahmadinejad noted Trump won the election while he “truthfully described the US political system and electoral structure as corrupt.”

US President Donald Trump speaks during a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (not seen) in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, February 15, 2017. (AFP/ SAUL LOEB)

Ahmadinejad decried US “dominance” over the United Nations, as well as American meddling in the world that has brought “insecurity, war, division, killing and (the) displacement of nations.”

He also acknowledged the immigration of some 1 million Iranians to America, saying that US policies should “value respect toward the diversity of nations and races.”

“In other words, the contemporary US belongs to all nations, including the natives of the land,” he wrote. “No one may consider themselves the owner and view others as guests or immigrants.”

A judge later blocked Trump’s travel ban, and an appeals court refused to reinstate it. Trump has promised to issue a revised order soon, saying it’s necessary to keep America safe.

Iran's heavy water nuclear facilities near the central city of Arak. (CC-BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia/Nanking2012)

Entirely missing from the letter was any reference to Iran’s nuclear program. Under Ahmadinejad’s presidency, Iran found itself heavily sanctioned over the program as Western governments feared it could lead to the Islamic Republic building atomic weapons. Iran has long maintained its program was for peaceful purposes.

Iran under current President Hassan Rouhani struck a nuclear deal with world powers, including the Obama administration, to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of some sanctions. Trump campaigned promising to renegotiate the deal, without offering specifics.

Representatives from world powers and Iran posing prior to the announcement of an agreement on Iran nuclear talks at the The Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, April 2, 2015. (AFP/FABRICE COFFRINI)

Ahmadinejad gave the letter to the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which represents US interests in Iran. The embassy declined to comment Sunday while American officials could not be immediately reached.

The letter comes ahead of Iran’s presidential election, in which Rouhani is widely expected to seek a second four-year term. While allies of Ahmadinejad are expected to run, he himself won’t after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned him in September his candidacy would bring about a “polarized situation” that would be “harmful for the county.”

Ahmadinejad’s popularity in Iran remains in question. During his tenure, he personally questioned the scale of the Holocaust and predicted the demise of Israel. His disputed 2009 re-election saw widespread protests and violence. Two of his former vice presidents went to prison for corruption.

But Ahmadinejad offered Trump his own warning about how quickly time passes for leaders.

“Four years is a long period, but it ends quickly,” he wrote. “The opportunity needs to be valued, and all its moments need to be used in the best way.”

Trump to Ask for Sharp Increases in Military Spending, Officials Say

WASHINGTON — President Trump will instruct federal agencies on Monday to assemble a budget for the coming fiscal year that includes sharp increases in Defense Department spending and drastic enough cuts to domestic agencies that he can keep his promise to leave Social Security and Medicare alone, according to four senior administration officials.

The budget outline will be the first move in a campaign this week to reset the narrative of Mr. Trump’s turmoil-tossed White House.

A day before delivering a high-stakes address on Tuesday to a joint session of Congress, Mr. Trump will demand a budget with tens of billions of dollars in reductions to the Environmental Protection Agency and State Department, according to four senior administration officials with direct knowledge of the plan. Social safety net programs, aside from the big entitlement programs for retirees, would also be hit hard.

Preliminary budget outlines are usually little-noticed administrative exercises, the first step in negotiations between the White House and federal agencies that usually shave the sharpest edges off the initial request.

But this plan — a product of a collaboration between the Office of Management and Budget director, Mick Mulvaney; the National Economic Council director, Gary Cohn; and the White House chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon — is intended to make a big splash for a president eager to show that he is a man of action.

Mr. Trump’s top advisers huddled in the White House this weekend to work on his Tuesday night prime-time address. They focused on a single, often overlooked message amid the chaos of his first weeks in the White House: the assertion that the reality-show candidate is now a president determined to keep audacious campaign promises on immigration, the economy and the budget, no matter how sloppy or disruptive it looks from the outside.

“They might not agree with everything you do, but people will respect you for doing what you said you were going to do,” said Jason Miller, a top communications strategist on the Trump campaign who remains close to the White House.

“He’s doing something first, and there’s time for talk later,” Mr. Miller added. “This is ultimately how he’s going to get people who didn’t vote, or people who didn’t vote for him, into the fold. Inside the Beltway and with the media, there’s this focus on the palace intrigue. Out in the rest of the country, they are seeing a guy who is focused on jobs and the economy.”

The budget plan, a numerical sketch that will probably be substantially altered by House and Senate Republicans — and vociferously opposed by congressional Democrats — will be Mr. Trump’s first big step into a legislative fray he has largely avoided during the first 40 days of his administration.

Thus far, instead of legislating, he has focused on a succession of executive orders on immigration and deregulation written by Mr. Bannon’s small West Wing team.

Resistance from federal agencies could ease some of the deepest cuts in the initial plan before a final budget request is even sent to Congress. And Capitol Hill will have the last word.

To meet Mr. Trump’s defense request, lawmakers in both parties would have to agree to raise or end statutory spending caps on defense and domestic programs that were imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act.

Mr. Trump is in a highly unusual position at a time when most presidents are finding their footing or confronting crisis. Despite his lament that he was handed “a mess” by President Barack Obama, Mr. Trump inherited a low unemployment rate, a lack of international crises requiring immediate attention and majorities in both houses of Congress.

By contrast, when Mr. Obama took office, the country was losing 700,000 jobs a month, and the global financial system was teetering on the edge of collapse. By the time he stepped up to the rostrum for his first joint congressional address on Feb. 24, 2009, he had already accrued an impressive string of accomplishments, including the passage of a massive stimulus bill through the Democratic-controlled Congress, a gender pay-parity act, a children’s health insurance law and executive actions that would ultimately help stabilize the financial and automotive sectors.

With the prospect of a second Great Depression still high, Mr. Obama sought to rally the country, vowing, “We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, who was Mr. Obama’s first chief of staff, said in an interview Sunday night that Mr. Trump was trying to create a “sense of urgency, which most people aren’t feeling right now, which was a reality to us” in order to generate support for his unspecified economic agenda, including an infrastructure bill and a tax overhaul.

“When it comes to all of these executive orders, the question is, does the public view what he’s doing as action or motion?” Mr. Emanuel added. “If you don’t have real action, you create a sense of motion, so the public views it as progress.”

In putting together their budget plans, White House officials are operating under the assumption that the rate of the United States’ economic growth this year will be 2.4 percent, according to one person who has been briefed on the matter. That is slightly ahead of current projections, but it is well below the 3 percent to 4 percent growth that Mr. Trump promised during the campaign.

For next year, the operating assumption is only slightly higher, that person added, a sign that the budget process will not be too out of step with economic reality.

The turmoil that has engulfed Mr. Trump’s West Wing is largely of his own devising — part of a calculated effort by Mr. Bannon to move boldly despite his team’s lack of experience, and despite the reluctance of many mainstream Republicans to work for a president whom many of them opposed in the party’s brutal primaries.

“During his first month in office, President Trump has done exactly what he said he was going to do,” said Thomas Barrack Jr., a longtime friend of Mr. Trump’s who ran his inaugural committee. “No president has worked harder or accomplished as much, even with tremendous political resistance forcing him to operate with a small team of outsiders possessing little government experience.”

Lawmakers in both parties have complained that the president’s big words are not yet matched by detailed policy prescriptions or a legislative affairs team capable of executing such undefined promises as repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act or rewriting the tax code.

The budget outline will give Mr. Trump an opportunity to add some specifics to an agenda that has been defined by bellicose speech and the broadest possible policy strokes.

Still, aides said Mr. Trump did not plan to change his style for Tuesday’s address. The speech, they said, is likely to have more in common with his clipped inaugural address — in which he declared, “The time for empty talk is over” — than the fine-print litanies of policy proposals favored by President Bill Clinton or the high-flung invocations of national purpose preferred by President George W. Bush and Mr. Obama.

Mr. Trump’s team, conscious of his recent reversals and a first-month approval rating that is among the lowest ever recorded, has emphasized his determination to break the partisan gridlock and inaction that has kept congressional approval ratings in the 15 to 30 percent range for years.

At the start of an interview last week with Sean Hannity of Fox News at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor, called him “President Action, President Impact, Donald J. Trump.”

In a round-robin of Sunday show interviews, Stephen Miller, Mr. Trump’s policy adviser, maintained that the president had accomplished more in his first month than most of his predecessors had in their entire administrations.

In reality, most of Mr. Trump’s executive actions have had no more effect on actual policy than news releases. And his nail-in-the-coffin order on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal came well after the agreement had been put on life support by labor protests and liberal opposition.

One West Wing official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about strategy, said the administration craved the split-screen television images of Mr. Trump at round-table discussions with business executives every few days on one side, and the vehement protesters of his administration on the other.

But his critics say such photo opportunities are all an act, a not-very-entertaining real-life rendition of “The Apprentice” by an ineffective rookie president.

“This man is not a doer,” said Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, who will host a Monday “pre-buttal” of Mr. Trump’s Tuesday speech. “Oh, please. He has nothing to show for what he’s been doing in office for 40 days. It’s all been squandered.”

‘I want an investigation’: Father of slain SEAL blames Trump’s carelessness and ego for son’s death

The father of a Navy SEAL killed during a mission that Donald Trump approved just a week into his administration blames the president for his son’s death.

William Owens told The Miami Herald that he refused to meet with Trump when the remains of son, William “Ryan” Owens, were returned to Dover Air Force Base.

“I’m sorry, I don’t want to see him,” Owens recalled explaining to the chaplain. “I told them I don’t want to meet the president.”

“I told them I didn’t want to make a scene about it, but my conscience wouldn’t let me talk to him.”

Owens questioned Trump’s motivation for signing off on a mission just six days into his presidency.

“Why at this time did there have to be this stupid mission when it wasn’t even barely a week into his administration? Why?” he asked. “For two years prior, there were no boots on the ground in Yemen — everything was missiles and drones — because there was not a target worth one American life. Now, all of a sudden we had to make this grand display?”

Although U.S. military officials told The New York Times that “everything went wrong” during the mission, the Trump administration has called the operation a success. Administration officials have claimed that an investigation would tarnish the memory Owen’s son, but the father disagrees.

“Don’t hide behind my son’s death to prevent an investigation,” he remarked. “I want an investigation. … The government owes my son an investigation.”

Owens suggested that Trump’s order to ban travel from seven majority-Muslim country a day before his son’s death may have compromised the mission.

“It just doesn’t make any sense to do something to antagonize an ally when you’re going to conduct a mission in that country,” he insisted. “Did we alienate some of the people working with them, translators or support people. Maybe they decided to release information to jeopardize the mission.”

“I think these are valid questions,” Owens added. “I don’t want anybody to think I have an agenda, because I don’t. I just want the truth.”

REPORT: TRUMP MAY PULL US OUT OF UN HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL DUE TO ISRAEL BIAS

 

The Trump administration may soon back Israel on its claim of UN bias and pull out of the organization’s Human Rights Council, Politico reported on Saturday.

According to the report, the administration is not expected to withdraw ahead of the council’s next session that begins on Monday, but discussion of the option has already begun and is expected to include input from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and President Donald Trump.

 

The administration regards the Council as being inherently anti-Israel which is the main reason for the consideration for pulling out of the international body, according to the report.

The news site also reported that in private conversations, Secretary Tillerson has expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the Council.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner did not confirm whether the issue was being considered and would only say that “our delegation will be fully involved in the work of the HRC session which starts Monday.”

Former Israeli ambassador to the US and current deputy minister for the Kulanu party Michael Oren welcomed a potential US move to withdraw from the council.

“US decision to quit the insanely anti-Israel UN Human Rights Council would send a moral message to the world,” Oren wrote on Twitter.
Since its creation in 2006, the UN Human Rights Council has been persistently criticized by the US for its biased treatment of Israel, which has been condemned more than any other country, including persistent human rights abusers such as Iran and Syria.

Under former US president George W. Bush, the US initially refused to seek a seat on the 47-member body and then withdrew from it altogether in 2008. Former US president Barack Obama reversed that position upon entering office, believing that the UNHRC could best be changed from within.

During the Obama administration the US held two consecutive terms on the council, from 2009 to 2015. It is now serving a three-year membership term that began in 2016. The US has often been the sole country to vote against resolutions condemning Israel.

Muhammad Ali’s son detained under Trump immigration ban

A lawyer says the son of legendary boxer Muhammad Ali was detained earlier this month by immigration officials at a Florida airport.

Muhammad Ali Jr., 44, and his mother Khalilah Camacho-Ali, the second wife of Muhammad Ali, arrived at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Feb. 7 after returning from Jamaica, Chris Mancini, the lawyer, said.

The family is considering a lawsuit.

The Courier-Journal reported that immigration officials let his mother go because hse showed them a picture of herself with the boxing legend. Her son did not have a photo, the report said.

Mancini said officials questioned Ali Jr. for nearly two hours, repeatedly asking him, “Where did you get your name from?” and “Are you Muslim?”

Mancini says officials continued questioning Ali Jr. after acknowledging that he was Muslim. Ali Jr., who has no criminal record, was born in Philadelphia and holds a U.S. passport.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials say they “cannot discuss individual travelers; however, all international travelers arriving in the U.S. are subject to CBP inspection.”

“This is an outrage,” Mancini, a former federal prosecutor and family friend, told The Miami New Times. “I don’t know what is going on with Mr. Trump’s claim that his ban is not religion-based. We do not discriminate in this country based on religion.”

Mancini said, despite frequent traveling, the two have never been subjected to detainment before.

“Imagine walking into an airport and being asked about your religion,” he said. “This is classic customs profiling.”

Pence pledges Trump will keep Iran from going nuclear, walks back Jerusalem promise

LAS VEGAS (JTA) — Vice President Mike Pence pledged to Jewish Republicans that the Trump administration would “never allow” Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, but walked back President Donald Trump’s promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.

“We told the ayatollahs of Iran they should check the calendar, there’s a new president in the Oval Office,” Pence said Friday addressing the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership conference during Shabbat dinner.

“President Trump will never allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, this is my solemn promise to you,” he said, to a standing ovation in the ballroom of the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas, owned by Sheldon Adelson, a major backer of Republicans and pro-Israel causes.

Jewish Republicans, as wells as Israel’s leadership and much of the centrist pro-Israel community, reviled the nuclear deal reached by the Obama administration with Iran which swapped sanctions relief for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program. Former President Barack Obama, who also had pledged to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, had said that the deal was the best means of doing so.

Pence, notably, did not say the Trump administration would kill the deal, however. Trump’s top aides have said that increasing enforcement of the deal is the better option at this stage.

Pence also substantially walked back Trump’s campaign pledge to move the embassy to Jerusalem, saying the administration was “assessing whether the embassy should be moved,” to tepid applause.

Trump himself has walked back his embassy pledge since he assumed office last month, but sending Pence, who for years has been intimately close to the pro-Israel community, to deliver the message to a fiercely pro-Israel audience seemed to put an end to hopes that any move would happen soon, if at all.

Pence also once again reassured the group to “rest assured” that the Trump administration would combat anti-Semitism. Jewish groups – including some, like the RJC, that have supported Trump – have been alarmed at the perceived insensitivity in the administration to sensibilities about attacks on Jews, particularly in the wake of a spike in bomb threats called into Jewish community centers.

Pence recalled his presence this week at a clean-up effort at a Jewish cemetery in the St. Louis area where dozens of tombstones had been vandalized.

“Let me be clear, we condemn these vile acts of vandalism and those perpetrated them in the strongest possible terms,” he said. “Hatred and antisemitism have no place in the United States of America.”

Did Donald Trump and the Jews have a good week?

JTA — Was this, at last, a good week for the Jews and President Donald Trump?

Compared to the Trump administration’s initial few weeks, maybe. The president’s first month saw the White House omit Jews from a statement commemorating the Holocaust, then rebuke Jewish groups that criticized the statement and stay silent as waves of hoax bomb threats hit Jewish community centers. Last week, Trump shut down a Jewish reporter asking a polite question on anti-Semitism. The day before, he began responding to a question on anti-Semitism by boasting about his election victory.

But starting with a specific if belated condemnation of Jew hatred on Tuesday, a number of statements and actions by Trump and his associates served to calm Jews who fear a growing specter of anti-Semitism on the right.

Days after angrily shutting down a Jewish journalist who asked about the administration’s plans to counter a spike in anti-Semitism, the president gave his critics what they had been seeking: a specific condemnation of anti-Semitism.

“Anti-Semitism is horrible and it’s going to stop, and it has to stop,” he said Tuesday, the day after the fourth wave of JCC bomb threats in five weeks.

US President Donald Trump gives a press conference at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington on Monday, February 21, 2017 (screen capture: Facebook)

In prepared remarks he delivered that day at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Trump said “The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and our Jewish community centers are horrible, are painful and they are a reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.”

The next day, Vice President Mike Pence gave succor to Jews looking for more than words from the administration. Visiting a vandalized Jewish graveyard outside St. Louis, Pence rolled up his sleeves and spent a few minutes clearing away branches and raking the cemetery.

US Vice President Mike Pence visits a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis following an act of vandalism at the site. (YouTube screenshot)

“There is no place in America for hatred, prejudice or anti-Semitism,” Pence said, literally speaking through a megaphone.

But most concerns from Jews about anti-Semitism have been more about Trump’s supporters than the man himself — from tweeters spewing deluges of white supremacist hate to the (as of now) anonymous criminals phoning in bomb threats and knocking over headstones. Right after Election Day, the Anti-Defamation League blamed “the contentious tone from the 2016 election” and said “extremists and their online supporters” have been “emboldened by the notion that their anti-Semitic and racists views are becoming mainstream.”

‘. At CPAC, the premier annual confab for political conservatives, attendees raucously cheered Trump — a man they once distrusted — and also made moves to exclude anti-Semitism from their movement.

Reporters surround white supremacist Richard Spencer during the first day of the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center February 23, 2017 in National Harbor, Maryland. American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp said that Spencer was "not part of the agenda" at CPAC. Hosted by the American Conservative Union, CPAC is an annual gathering of right wing politicians, commentators and their supporters. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, via JTA)

A Thursday session was dedicated to bashing the “alt-right,” a loose far-right movement that includes anti-Semites and white supremacists, and affirming that it wasn’t part of conservative ideology.

“There is a sinister organization that is trying to worm its way into our ranks,” said Dan Schneider, executive director of the American Conservative Union, which runs CPAC. “They are anti-Semites. They are racists.”

Richard Spencer, a leading white supremacist who showed up at the conference uninvited, was kicked out of CPAC after holding court with reporters.

Jewish concerns haven’t been completely assuaged. At CPAC, Trump adviser Stephen Bannon, who used to run Breitbart, a news website favored by the alt-right, denounced the “corporatist, globalist media,” using a phrase that evokes anti-Semitic tropes of Jews as an internationalist fifth column.

Jewish groups mostly praised the Trump condemnation of anti-Semitism, and especially Pence’s words and actions at the St. Louis cemetery. But nearly all urged the president to follow up with concrete plans for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism. The ADL is circulating a petition imploring Attorney General Jeff Sessions to take “immediate actions that will curb anti-Semitic threats and all hate crimes in our schools and communities.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo suggested how that might be done, announcing on Thursday that the state is committing $25 million for safety and security upgrades at Jewish schools and other institutions at risk of hate crimes or attacks. In thanking Cuomo in a tweet, the ADL’s regional director, Evan Bernstein, called it an “ideal example of what an elected official can do: Speak out, have a plan & commit resources to problem.”

Now that the administration seems to have found its voice, the Jewish mainstream is looking for action.