Presidents Conference Silent on Hebron

By Marc Perelman

Published December 11, 2008, issue of December 19, 2008.
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While major Jewish groups have publicly condemned the violence perpetrated by West Bank settlers against Israeli security forces and Palestinians in Hebron this month, the main voice of American Jewry has remained silent.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella body of 51 Jewish groups, has not issued a statement about the evacuation of settlers and their supporters from a disputed house in the West Bank town December 4 followed by settler violence against Hebron’s Palestinian residents.

Moreover, Daily Alert, the Presidents Conference’s Internet newsletters of Middle East-related published articles, did not refer to the incidents at all during the week after they occurred. Daily Alert is sent via e-mail to tens of thousands of free subscribers and is displayed on Web site of the Presidents Conference.

The incidents in Hebron included settlers setting fire to Palestinian-owned olive trees, stoning vehicles and pedestrians, and defacing Muslim graves with the Star of David. A Palestinian father and son were shot (reports on their condition are unavailable).

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert described the events as a “pogrom.”

“Most American Jewish organizations from different sensitivities have spoken out strongly against the settler’s activities, first and foremost because we should support the government of Israel,” said Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “One would hope the conference would support the government, especially if its prime minister defined the events as a pogrom. This is why I regret the fact that the conference did not speak out nor contact its members to discuss the issue.”

Calls seeking comment from the Presidents Conference’s executive vice president, Malcolm Hoenlein, and its chair, Harold Tanner, were not returned.

The Israeli government acted after a Supreme Court ruling authorized it to evacuate the building pending the resolution of a dispute between a Palestinian and a Syrian-American Jew over its ownership.

While left-leaning groups have predictably condemned the Hebron violence, centrist organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress, all members of the Presidents Conference, have also issued statements criticizing the settlers.

“The attacks against Palestinians, their farms, cemeteries and other Muslim property by Jewish extremists are deeply troubling and unacceptable,” the ADL said in a December 5 statement. The organization did not return queries seeking comment, nor did the AJCongress. David Harris, executive director of the AJCommittee, declined to comment on the Presidents Conference’s stance.

On the right, the Zionist Organization of America, which had opened a symbolic office in the Hebron building to show support for the settlers, remained silent for a week before issuing a long statement December 10. The ZOA expressed regret that the Israeli authorities, especially Defense Minister and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, decided to forcibly expel the militants. The group, however, stressed that it did not condone the ensuing violence.

Though the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America did not issue a statement, it aired similar views. In an e-mail to the Forward, the union’s public policy director, Nathan Diament, stated that despite its feeling that the evacuation was unwarranted, and its objection to Olmert’s use of the word “pogrom,” the O.U. leadership “does not believe this justifies Israelis attacking IDF soldiers, and it certainly does not justify acts of harassment or violence against Palestinians.”

The only group that openly criticized the actions of the Israeli government and did not condemn the settlers’ actions is the National Council of Young Israel.

Yoffie noted that the reactions from hawkish groups proved that there was a broad consensus among Jewish organizations in condemning the violence. “Pogroms, grave desecrations, are sensitive issues that the vast majority of American Jews reject, and this is why I regret that the conference did not move on this.”

Moreover, the Conference’s daily alert, a news digest made up of a dozen Middle East-related published articles, sent via e-mail to tens of thousands of free subscribers and available on the Conference’s website, did not refer to the incidents at all in the week following the December 3 incidents.

The contents of the Daily Alert are put together by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a research institute headed by Dore Gold, a former foreign policy adviser to Likud leaders Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu, who is running for prime minister in the February 10 elections. Left-leaning groups have for years complained that the digest consists mostly of right-leaning articles or opinion pieces, reflecting the conference’s political leanings.

Gold, who was appointed by Netanyahu as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in 1997 and attended a meeting in July between the Likud leader and Barack Obama in Israel, told the Forward that he did not have any formal tie to the Netanyahu campaign. “If I am called in for a meeting I will go but I am not on staff and I’m not paid,” he said on the phone from Jerusalem, adding that his center hosted meetings for political leaders from all stripes. “Obviously everybody comes from somewhere but I am first and foremost a scholar.”

The Connecticut-born Gold, who has written a best-selling book about Saudi Arabia’s terrorism alleged financing ties, stressed that the Daily Alert was meant to cover issues pertaining to the relationship between Israel and the world and avoid Israeli domestic issues. “We don’t want to get drawn into Israeli internal disputes and the Hebron incidents were very controversial here,” he said.

While the Daily Alert articles do indeed mostly focus on issues such as Iran, Lebanon, Hamas and terrorism, they also sometimes touch upon internal Israeli topics and often feature stories about Palestinian violence against Israelis. On December 5, two days after the Hebron incidents, the Daily Alert included a small news item from Ynet, the English-language web site of Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s largest daily, about an Israeli woman and her two-month-old daughter being lightly injured by rock-throwing Palestinians near the West Bank town of Nablus. Even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby powerhouse which generally steers clear of internal Israeli debates, posted a lead story on its web site headlined “Upholding court order, Israeli troops evict squatters.”

Gold admitted that given the international repercussions of the Hebron incidents, “in hindsight, we probably should have included a factual story about it.”

Ori Nir, a spokesman for the dovish Americans for Peace Now, a conference member, expressed hope that its leadership would eventually weigh in on the issue. “It’s not too late,” he said.

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