Time for Heresy

Published December 31, 2004, issue of December 31, 2004.
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Four months ago, the American Jewish Congress stunned Israel and the Jewish world by naming a foreign diplomat, Alon Pinkas, outgoing Israeli consul general in New York, to be its new CEO. The congress, a struggling agency, was showered with plaudits (including an editorial in this newspaper) for its boldness in choosing an eloquent voice that could articulate a new vision of Jewish liberalism.

There were others who argued, more quietly, that the move could backfire, reinforcing antisemitic images of an American Jewish community secret run out of Jerusalem. Questions were raised in Jerusalem, too, about the propriety of an Israeli diplomat appearing, as it were, to jump ship. Those questions gained urgency when it turned out that Israel deemed such behavior not just improper but illegal.

This week a panel of Israeli administrative judges effectively settled the issue by ruling that Pinkas can’t take the job until July, long after his contract expires. And it’s just as well. We were wrong.

We make no apologies for our praise of Pinkas, who has served his government with distinction in a variety of posts. It might well be, as we argued last summer, that no one is better equipped to rethink the meaning of American Jewish liberalism and its relationship to Israel today.

But you don’t need security clearance to know that the problems in American Jewry’s relations with Israel have gone beyond the realm of philosophy of late. As Ori Nir reports on Page 1, federal investigators are continuing to probe the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobbying group owned by a consortium of the nation’s largest Jewish organizations, on suspicions that might include espionage. Communal leaders fear the lobby might be forced in the end to register as a foreign agent, a move that would sorely hurt its effectiveness on Capitol Hill at a time when Israel’s need for friends has seldom been greater.

It would also lend fuel to critics around the world and here at home who accuse American Jews, in increasingly open terms, of putting Israel’s interests ahead of America’s. Such dual-loyalty talk has moved from the fringes of society to polite conversation in leading policy circles.

What’s worse, protesting the talk no longer helps. It merely pours fuel on the fire, adding “bullying” and “suppressing debate” to the charge list. Sympathy for the Jews’ vulnerability is dissipating before our eyes, as the days when we were helpless victims fade from memory. And because our image of vulnerability is fading, we are, ironically, becoming vulnerable.

This is a time for cautious talk and considered action. It is Jerusalem that is leading the way, if one knows how to listen, by laying the groundwork to restructure the Jewish state’s relations with the Jewish communities of the Diaspora. The end goal is to change priorities. If Diaspora Jews face threatening accusations of placing Israel’s interests first, so the thinking goes, then it is time for Israel to begin thinking harder about the interests of Diaspora Jews.

Such thinking is still heresy in pro-Israel activist circles, where Israeli security is the beginning and end of wisdom. But these are times for heresy.

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