More than 300 Jewish leaders from around the country, including nine from the Philadelphia area, converged on Washington, D.C., last week as part of the National Jewish Leadership Advocacy Day on Iran.
The day seemed to signal a new phase of Jewish efforts to isolate Iran internationally, now that news reports suggest that the country may be on the verge of nuclear capability.
While tougher sanctions have long been on the agenda, many Jewish groups have been reticent to push the issue too hard out of a fear that it could be viewed specifically as a Jewish issue.
"This day was very much about advocating sanctions and bringing the issue to the forefront of the U.S. policy agenda. I think it was very successful in doing that," said Michael Bronstein, a Philadelphia-based political consultant and pro-Israel activist who attended the program put together by the the Inter-Agency Task Force on Iran, which is led by several national Jewish groups.
During a session of briefings with congressional leaders and administration officials, U.S. Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that, come October, he plans to have his committee review the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act.
The legislation would allow the president to impose sanctions on companies that help Iran import or produce refined petroleum Iran imports 40 percent of its refined petroleum.
"If the Iranians are going to engage in a significant way that will spell the end of their nuclear-enrichment program, we'll open a new chapter with them," said Berman. "But let's clarify 'meaningful' — we're not going to be conned by an Iranian rope-a-dope, its stalling efforts."
Marc Felgoise, another local pro-Israel activist, noted that Berman's announcement represented a major step: "What I heard yesterday is that Berman really wants to move forward."
About 20 participants from Pennsylvania met with both U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In May, Casey co-sponsored the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act, which would authorize the divestment of public pension money from companies doing business in Iran's oil and natural-gas sector.
"Iran is allowed to act as a normal nation, but we should treat them as a pariah state," explained Adam Kessler, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, who helped organize the local contingent.
Powerful Lineup at the Table
If anyone had doubts about how important the Iran issue is to the leadership of the mainstream American Jewish community, the powerful lineup at the Sept. 10 panel discussion during advocacy day should have erased them.
AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr, Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman, American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris and B'nai B'rith International Executive Director Dan Mariaschin were seated at the same table on the stage next to moderator Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.
"There is no national sense of urgency" on Iran, said Foxman, who then outlined a "Catch-22" situation facing the Jewish community in the coming months.
"We do not have the luxury to not lead" on Iran, he said, but in taking the lead, "some may dismiss the threat as just a Jewish issue."