Jewish efforts around the G-20: Iran, poverty and Darfur

Jewish efforts around the G-20: Iran, poverty and Darfur

The G-20 Summit came through Pittsburgh last week, drawing involvement from local and national Jewish groups on several issues, and leaving the local Jewish community unharmed.
And while the summit largely covered topics not specific to the Jewish world, a surprise announcement Friday morning about Iran’s nuclear program brought an issue of importance to the international Jewish community to the forefront of the agenda.
The Summit brought together the leaders from 20 leading economies, as well as other important global players and nonnational groups like the United Nations. The gathering of so many influential people in one place also drew thousands of journalists to Pittsburgh, and thousands of activists and protestors hoping for time in the spotlight.
Jewish groups asked the leaders of G-20 nations to address poverty around the world, the humanitarian crisis in Darfur and the nuclear ambitions of the Iranian regime.
“The Jewish community was very visible,” said Jeff Cohan, director of community and public affairs for the United Jewish Federation.
At an interfaith prayer service before the Summit, rabbis and congregants from Rodef Shalom and Temple Sinai joined Catholic, Protestant and Muslim leaders from the city in asking world leaders to address poverty, the environment and personal freedom.
On the day before the Summit, Bread for the World — a Christian collective focused on addressing hunger around the world — and a diverse group of religious leaders asked the leaders of G-20 nations to consider the poor in their policymaking.
Rabbi Steve Gutow, head of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs said leaders should especially consider the poor as they make climate policy.
“Climate change will wreak havoc on the lives of the poor and efforts to prevent it will, at least initially, also wreak havoc on the lives of the poor,” Gutow said. “We are here today to ask in God’s name that those leaders who make decisions look very carefully at the plight of those who suffer most and do what it takes to make special adaptations because of that plight.”
On Tuesday, the Pittsburgh Darfur Emergency Coalition erected signs bearing the names of destroyed villages in Darfur on Flagstaff Hill, which faces the Phipps Conservatory, where world leaders gathered upon arriving in Pittsburgh.
Word of protests led some in the Jewish community to speculate on whether violence might be directed against local Jewish institutions.
Both the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and WTAE ran stories in which local Jewish leaders wondered whether the community might be targeted.
Those fears failed to materialize.
The three Jewish day schools in Squirrel Hill kept normal schedules during the two days of the summit.
The Hillel Jewish University Center closed its building in Oakland, but maintained its regular schedule of programming on Thursday and Friday.
The two largest protests connected with the G-20 did not appear to impact the Jewish community either positively or negatively.
The first protest, an unpermitted March on Thursday through parts of the east end of the city, ended with a clash between protestors and police.
City officials reported damage to businesses in Bloomfield, Shadyside and Oakland, but not in Squirrel Hill, Point Breeze, Greenfield or neighborhoods further east.
The second protest, a permitted demonstration running from Oakland to the North Side, through Downtown, was mostly peaceful.
That demonstration, coordinated by the Thomas Merton Center, included activists marching for a wide range of issues, including at least one segment critical of Israeli policies, with signs bearing slogans like “Free Palestine” and “End the Occupation.”
As of Sept. 30, the UJF said the only complaints it heard from the Jewish community concerned a group of Jews for Jesus who appeared to have arrived in town around the G-20 Summit to hand out literature.
The preparations for the summit involved local Jews.
Rabbi Eli Seidman was one of three chaplains called out to assist nearly 2,000 National Guardsmen with Operation Steel Kickoff, an effort to assist police set up traffic control points around the city during the summit.
“We had a few tense moments. We did not know what we were going to face when the protests began,” Seidman wrote in an e-mail to The Chronicle. “We heard about the anarchists and the destruction they had wrought in previous G-20 and WTO [World Trade Organization] meetings. We braced ourselves for the worst.”
“Thank G-d,” he added, “what we feared did not happen.”
As primarily an economic forum, the G-20 originally promised to focus on coordinating financial policies. But on Friday morning, those attentions became divided, as world leaders criticized Iran for building a secret uranium enrichment facility.
President Barack Obama said the new facility was inconsistent with peaceful nuclear uses, meaning technology for creating energy and not warheads, and was a “direct challenge to the basic compact at the center of the nonproliferation treaty” requiring signatories to report all nuclear activity.
Obama said the new site “deepens a growing concern that Iran is refusing to live up to those international responsibilities, including specifically revealing all nuclear related activities.”
However, the news did not appear to sway Obama from his strategy of using diplomacy and negotiations to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
“We are committed to serious, meaningful engagement with Iran to address the nuclear issue” through the six parties negotiations with Iran set to begin today in Geneva.
Those six parties are the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the United States, France, the United Kingdom, China and Russia — plus Germany.
The statement from Obama and other leaders fits with a trend of global powers coming together to force Iran to negotiate, and also shows an increasing sense of urgency on the matter, according to David Shorr, with the nonpartisan Stanley Foundation.
“It should put a lot more pressure on Iran,” Shorr said.
But the Iranian regime has never responded to negotiations, according to Manda Zand Ervin, an Iranian expatriate and activist who spoke before the announcement.
Ervin said only a coordinated policy of sanctions and divestment — like paying oil workers in Iran to strike for several months — would topple the existing regime.
“The Iranian regime will never negotiate, that’s for sure,” Ervin said. “The day that this regime in Iran stops anti-American and anti-Israel nonsense, that would be their end. … This is how they are sitting on power.”
The news from Iran and the subsequent statement from world leaders brought the issue of Iran back into prominence, according to Jeff Cohan, with the UJF.
“We couldn’t have written a better script,” Cohan said. “Iran emerged as the number one point from the G-20.”
The UJF gathered around 2,000 signatures on a petition asking the United States and other G-20 nations to “impose comprehensive and effective sanctions and other economic measures on the Iranian regime,” and gave those signatures to embassies and U.N. missions of G-20 countries, Cohan said.
Cohan believes that effort — along with press conferences and awareness campaigns on other issues like Darfur and global poverty — did more to progress the causes of the Jewish community than protests would have done.
“Those protests and rallies had no effect on the outcome of the G-20,” he said. “The G-20 is pretty impervious to grassroots advocacy, unfortunately. And we knew that.”

(Eric Lidji can be reached at

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