Gore praises Jewish communitys battles for justice

ATLANTA — Vice President Al Gore may not know how to pronounce Hebrew words, but he knows how to tailor a speech to a Jewish audience.

Speaking in Atlanta at the opening plenum of the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, Gore commended the American Jewish community's pursuit of social justice.

"I want to thank you for your daily battles for justice," he said Wednesday of last week to the roughly 5,200 delegates at the G.A., as the annual meeting of Israelis and federation representatives from across North America is known.

Gore told the group that the Jewish principles of "freedom, faith and justice are very much alive throughout the world" because of the UJC's work providing for social services, rescue and relief.

The UJC was celebrating its first G.A. as a legal entity, following this spring's merger of the United Jewish Appeal, the Council of Jewish Federations and the United Israel Appeal. While much of his 20-minute address focused on issues that have become central to his presidential campaign against Democratic rival Bill Bradley, Gore peppered his remarks with references to Jewish values, prophetic wisdom and Yiddish humor.

His Hebrew isn't perfect.

Gore's pronunciation of the word "chesed," Hebrew for kindness, with a hard "ch" as in "church," rather than the throaty "h" that Hebrew calls for — brought laughter from the packed Atlanta Civic Center.

"Did I pronounce it wrong?" Gore asked. He was corrected from the floor.

Gore, who initially declined the UJC's invitation to speak, apparently decided to take advantage of the opportunity to promote his political agenda.

He decided to attend just days before his appearance, throwing G.A. organizers into a frantic push to accommodate the vice president's security requirements.

Bradley arranged separately to meet Wednesday evening with Jewish leaders in Atlanta during a previously scheduled visit.

While the vice president has often addressed Jewish groups, including past G.A.'s, this time he appeared to deliberately distance himself from the Clinton administration, focusing not on his record as vice president, but on his vision for America's future.

In keeping with what has become part of his retooled campaign image, he presented himself as a casual speaker, even taking the microphone from its stand and moving to the front of the stage.

Despite the fact that Gore was speaking to a group that sends nearly $200 million to Israel each year, he made few references to the Jewish state.

Nor did he mention Jerusalem, a subject that is a central sticking point in the Israeli-Palestinian final-status talks. Most politicians, in talking to Jewish crowds, emphasize Jerusalem as Israel's "eternal, undivided capital."

Gore made only vague mention of the Middle East peace process and did not identify himself with the Clinton administration's role in pushing Israel and its neighbors back to the negotiating table.

He said he wanted "to make very clear" at this "hopeful, but fragile moment in the peace process, when we all dream of peace with security," that "the United States of America will always stand with Israel whenever she takes risks for peace and will always be a strong supporter of Israel."

When speaking specifically about foreign policy, Gore centered his remarks around his support for the passage of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on nuclear weapons, which the United States drafted for the international community, but the Senate rejected.

On the domestic front, Gore called for hate crimes legislation and for protecting "a woman's right to choose," which received thunderous applause.

But he devoted most of his speech to issues of social justice that he said were central to Jewish tradition: education, the environment, and health care for children and the elderly.

"Jews have understood the fragility of our social order" and the need for "laws and commandments," Gore said.

"I am here today because I share those values," he said, noting that his values came from his family and "a tradition interwoven with yours."