Students struggle for consensus on U.S. Embassy move

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Stepping to the podium, papers in hand, State Department "spokesman" Joshua Eizen took to the floor to explain to the Jewish gathering why the U.S. Embassy in Israel should not yet be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

"Now is not the time," he said. "To do it in the middle of the peace process is premature and, for lack of a better word, stupid," he told the assembled delegates.

Maryland "Congressman" Ari Lipman countered: "Israel is our strongest ally. We need to demonstrate the strength of that relationship in any way possible. That's the main reason we believe the U.S. Embassy should be in Jerusalem."

Then Israeli "official" Jason Salus chimed in. "The timing is wrong," he said. "If the embassy is moved now there will be no peace process, no [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin; we will return to the intifada," he said.

The exchange sounded like many Jewish meetings, with one exception: Eizen, 18; Lipman, 17; and Salus, 16, are in high school.

They were three of the 19 high school and college students in town this week for the Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values' Advanced Seminar. Students took on the roles of members of the Israeli government, U.S. Congress, the State Department, and American Jewish hawks and doves.

At a mock plenum of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Committee, an umbrella organization, the students debated the controversial question of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

They then switched gears, posing as NJCRAC members, to discuss the embassy issue and to come up with a consensus statement about Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's (R-Kan.) proposed legislation to begin construction on a new embassy in Jerusalem in 1996, before Israel and the Palestinians are scheduled to have concluded their negotiations on Jerusalem.

The move has its detractors in Israel and at home. Secretary of State Warren Christopher threatened Tuesday to recommend to President Bill Clinton that he veto the bill mandating the move.

The students echoed many of the sentiments expressed by adult Jewish leaders and activists on all sides of the issue.

Although most Jews support moving the embassy, some have argued that doing it too soon could endanger the Middle East peace process. "As American Jews, we have to support Congress, because Israel needs to see American support," said Yael Lerman, a 17-year-old California high school senior.

Jesse Strauss, who will be a freshman at George Washington University here in the fall, disagreed.

"The embassy should be moved sometime, but it's not prudent now. It's reactionary," he said.

When it came time to vote on the mock NJCRAC position, the students were as divided as the Jewish community at large.

Working from NJCRAC's actual statement, the students voted 10 to 9 for an amended version that said NJCRAC members "cannot support the moving of the embassy at this time, but do insist it be moved as soon as the final status of Jerusalem has been solved."

The official NJCRAC position was less direct. The organization issued a statement last month saying it has always supported moving the embassy to Jerusalem and it supports the goal of the Dole legislation. But NJCRAC said it does not want the issue to "become politically divisive" and it urged the Clinton administration and Congress to work together to bring the embassy to Jerusalem.