Five questions for American Jewish Committee’s Jason Isaacson

Jason Isaacson

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Jason Isaacson, the Washington Director for Government and International Affairs of the American Jewish Committee, was in St. Louis last Tuesday for meetings with local AJC members and other Jewish leaders and volunteers. While here he sat down for an interview with the Jewish Light to discuss some of the latest headlines on the national and international scene.

Isaacson, 56, has been on the staff of AJC for the past 19 years, and was already a veteran of the nation’s capital when he joined its Washington team. He worked on Capitol Hill for a number of years in the Senate and the House as a staffer, most recently as Chief of Staff for Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn).

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Given the fast-moving events of the past few weeks, the Gaza Flotilla, the Helen Thomas flap and the tense relations between Washington and Jerusalem, it is difficult to know where to start. So I will begin by asking about your response to Thomas’ sudden retirement from the Hearst News organization after having made a statement that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine and go back to Poland, Germany or the United States.” Did you have any previous inkling that Thomas was so anti-Israel?

I had heard some things. But I don’t want to make the departure of Helen Thomas, who had been a significant figure in Washington for many years, any worse than it is. I would rather not that her memory be completely obscured by this ugly revelation. I’d rather remember her contribution to American journalism and women’s advancement in journalism and her service as a proponent of freedom of the press. Clearly what she said was so far out of the bounds of what’s acceptable, and so revealing of a very ugly and dark attitudes about Jews and about Israel, that the end of her career is proper, but I’m sorry that it had to end on this note.

Regarding the coverage by the media of the Gaza Flotilla matter, has it been even more biased than usual, or are we being thin-skinned in that belief?

I was editing something that a colleague had written yesterday, and it opened by talking about the ‘unprecedented’ international censure of Israel that the Gaza flotilla incident has caused, and I thought, you know actually, it’s not the least bit unprecedented. Actually, it’s totally precedented with any number of incidents that have elicited outrageous, over-the-top one-sided reactions from the international community, governments from around the world, from United Nations organizations and much of the media.

Israel has not imposed a blockade against Gaza to impose collective punishment on the Palestinians. What happened on the high seas wasn’t the result of Israel’s intention to ‘murder peace activists.’ The fact is there was a violent provocation by the Hamas supporters on the Turkish ship. It was a provocation intended to elicit action by Israel to draw international attention. Hamas’ entire purpose was to blacken the reputation of Israel, and to make it seem that Israel was oppressing the Palestinian people.

It’s not a good situation in Gaza. But there is humanitarian aid that gets in; there is food. There is medicine. Reporters who have been in Gaza this past week report that there are stocked grocery shelves. Again, it is not Fifth Avenue, but it is not a situation in which people are starving.

It is a situation in which a terrorist organization fires rockets into Israel and needs to be prevented from resupplying those rockets. Israel has every right and obligation to prevent that from happening. There will undoubtedly be some further assessment of the best way to enforce the blockade and to have the least humanitarian impact. But the blockade is necessary. There must be security restraints on Hamas.

What about the role of Ireland in the second attempt to run the blockade with the ship Rachel Corrie?

Ireland is very much against the blockade, and while there was no violent confrontation, Ireland feels strongly that Hamas should not be ignored, based on its own experience with wanting various groups in Ireland to be part of the process. From an Irish perspective, they feel even people who want to kill you should be sitting at the table. I think they have created an analogy between the Irish Republican Army and Hamas that doesn’t quite hold up, but that is the way they see it.

What about the role of Turkey not only in the Gaza flotilla, but the visit to Iran by the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogen, where he and the president of Brazil embraced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Turkey is a NATO ally of the United States and until recently was called Israel’s closest ally in the Muslin world. Why the shift?

I agree. Turkey is playing a very dangerous game. There are such significant interests that are in play here: the U.S. relationship with Turkey; Turkey’s relationship with Europe; Turkey’s crucial role in NATO; Turkey’s role in the re-supply of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is also its border with Iran and the status of the 23,000-member Jewish community of Turkey. The Turkish Jewish community has a proud history, and over the past century a history of acceptance and toleration and integration into Turkish society. Also, the Turkish government has made a point to reach out to Jewish communities around the world. The statements and actions recently by Turkish officials, the outrageous comments that have been made about Israel by the Turkish prime minister, each day plumbing a new depth, including a statement equating the Star of David and the swastika.

What about the reports that Iran has threatened to join one of the Gaza-bound flotillas?

There have been reports that the Iranian Red Crescent said they would do this and one member of the clerical leadership made a statement to this effect. It would be the height of folly for Iran to think that it could engage in a naval confrontation in the Mediterranean. It would not only be Israel that would react. Iran has no business in those waters. I am hoping that cooler heads in that not very cool regime will prevail.