Prominent Jewish Liberals Answer the JCall

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published May 19, 2010, issue of May 28, 2010.

A group of prominent American Jews is circulating an online petition supporting the Obama administration’s “vigorous encouragement” of Israel and the Palestinians to “make the concessions necessary” to advance the peace process.

The petition, posted at www.forthesakeofzion.org on May 13, claims inspiration from the European Jewish Call for Reason, otherwise known as JCall. A petition that JCall submitted to the European Parliament on May 3 condemned Israel’s policy of establishing exclusively Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and in Palestinian-dominated East Jerusalem as “morally and politically wrong.” The American group’s petition cites and supports that characterization.

The American petition’s signatories are, for the most part, known doves in the Jewish community. They include sociologist Steven M. Cohen; historian Hasia Diner; former senior Clinton administration official Peter Edelman; retired federal appellate court judge Abner Mikva; Forward publisher Samuel Norich and Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. The petition was organized by Cohen and by Leonard Fein, a Forward columnist.

The initiative comes at a time of heated debate within the Jewish community over the peace process and the particular issue of Jerusalem’s final status. In early May, President Obama had a White House lunch with writer Elie Wiesel, who had penned a letter calling on the president to ease pressure on Israel over the status of Jerusalem.

Titled “For the Sake of Zion,” the new petition argues that a two-state solution is crucial to Israel’s interest if it is to remain both Jewish and democratic. The American letter calls for a construction freeze in the “disputed” territories, which presumably include East Jerusalem.

The letter describes its signatories as Americans who have close ties to Israel. “Some of us have lived and worked in Israel; all of us have visited there many times,” it reads.

There are apparent differences between the American and European petitions. While the European JCall asks the European Union and America to “put pressure on both parties,” meaning the Israelis and the Palestinians, the American version calls instead for “vigorous encouragement,” by America of the parties to make concessions to each other. “The word ‘pressure’ is obviously an inflammatory word,” Fein said. “Our objective is not to inflame, but to persuade.”

The American letter calls on the Palestinians to forswear terrorism and their claim to a right of return. It calls on the Israelis to split sovereignty of Jerusalem and to “dismantle the settlements considered illegal under Israeli law.” No mention is made of controversial but government-authorized West Bank settlements, including those in Hebron and Ariel.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, criticized the petition.

“As long as Israel is, thank God, a democracy, let the Israelis put pressure on the Israeli government,” Foxman said. He added, “There is sophistry to say it’s the citizens of Israel who will decide [about the peace process] and ours is to call attention. Who needs them to call attention? It’s naive.

“Peace is not going to come out of the voice of American Jews or European Jews. Peace is going to come when the Palestinians are ready and the Israelis will meet them, willing to make compromises.”

Jeremy Ben Ami, executive director of the dovish lobby J Street, was not one of the petition’s original signatories but he released a statement supporting it.

“This new effort is part of a growing movement among supporters of Israel in the United States and around the world to stand up for Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic home,” Ben Ami wrote.

Americans for Peace Now, another dovish group, has encouraged its supporters to sign.

According to the petition’s website, 1,065 people had signed the online statement as of May 19. The names of signatories beyond the 33 members of the organizing committee are not visible on the site. Cohen said that they have been hidden because of vandalism of the list, but will eventually be posted.

The statement came in the same week that Peter Beinart, former editor of The New Republic, published a scathing critique of the American Jewish establishment’s approach to Israel. His article appeared in The New York Review of Books.

“Morally, American Zionism is on a downward spiral,” Beinart wrote. He criticized mainstream groups for supporting an Israeli government that does not share the American Jewish establishment’s avowedly liberal values.

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com



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