A People Divided By Minority Rule

By Eric Yoffie

Published October 29, 2004, issue of October 29, 2004.
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In both Israel and America, minorities in the Jewish world are attempting to impose their will on the majority. The outcome of these efforts will do much to determine the future course of Jewish politics.

In Israel, the settler movement is campaigning to block the acceptance of Prime Minister Sharon’s disengagement plan from Gaza. That the settlers’ position is a minority one is indisputable. Poll after poll shows that two-thirds or more of Israelis support the prime minister’s plan — and in Israel’s raucous and contentious democracy, two-thirds constitutes a very substantial majority.

The settlers first responded to their minority status with the “Big Lie.” Settler spokespersons proclaimed that Sharon was dividing the Jewish people. In a media campaign that was part egocentric self-absorption and part political calculation, the settlers simply appropriated for themselves the title “the people.” Posters appeared throughout Israel with the words “Sharon is dividing the people.”

This was a chutzpadik claim and ultimately an unsustainable one. Israelis are deeply divided on many issues — on the free-market economic reforms of Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on questions of religion and state, on matters of education, on social justice and how to fight poverty — but the Gaza withdrawal is not one of them.

The settlers then moved on to a second and more ominous assertion: that the Sharon plan would lead the Jewish people to civil war. This was a none-too-subtle threat directed at Israel’s democratic political system. The settler leaders did not endorse violence directly, but they suggested that it would be the inevitable outcome of the plan, unfortunate but beyond their power to contain.

In so doing, they were sending a message to their supporters: Why refrain from violence when it could not be stopped, and when it was, at least on some level, understandable? They hinted that if the disengagement were to be approved, hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of armed young men would flock to Gaza and resist the evacuation by whatever means necessary. And they suggested that possible outbreaks of violence justified their demand for a referendum.

Threats of violence have worked many times in the past. In February 1994, after the massacre by Baruch Goldstein at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin considered evacuating Jewish settlers from Hebron. But he didn’t because he feared a violent reaction. In so doing, Rabin joined the many other government leaders who, in the last 30 years, blinked at illegal efforts to expand or establish settlements because of fear of rampaging settlers.

Will it work this time? Regardless of the Knesset’s approval October 26 of the Gaza disengagement plan, it is still too early to know. In a dramatic confrontation a week before the vote, Sharon spoke to settler leaders in a way that no other prime minister had ever spoken to them. He told them that as the elected leader of the Israeli people, he, and not they, was entitled to represent the nation and speak in their name. And he asserted that the government would not let its policies be determined by those who engaged in crude threats and in talk of civil war. But in the overheated political atmosphere of Israel today, and in light of Sharon’s weakened position, it is not clear who will blink first.

The settlers are free, of course, to pursue their goals by all legitimate political means. But they are not free to see their concerns as inherently more worthy than the concerns of other Israelis who must pay the political price for their beliefs. They are not free to ask for the love and embrace of their greater Jewish family while kicking that family in the gut and threatening it with civil war. They are not free to ask that others honor their struggle unless they are prepared to recognize the legitimacy of opinions different from their own. Most of all, they are not free to challenge the rules of the democratic game — and if they do so, the time has come to call their bluff. A democracy that lives in the shadow of violence and rebellion from segments of its own citizenry eventually ceases to be a democracy.

A different sort of minority chutzpah is also at work in the deliberations of American Jewry’s organizational leadership.

As reported last week in the Forward, all the pieces were in place months ago for the Gaza disengagement plan to be endorsed by the community’s umbrella body, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The plan was approved by the Israeli Cabinet. It was endorsed by the government of the United States. It was backed by most American Jews. A significant majority of American Jewish organizations, including most of the largest ones, supported it, as well. Israeli diplomats, who usually have the ear of Presidents Conference leaders, were sending a discreet message that Israel hoped to see conference action.

How is it possible, then, that no statement was issued until two weeks ago, and that the statement was so equivocal that only with difficulty could one tell if it endorsed the plan or not?

James Tisch, chairman of the Presidents Conference and an honorable man, told me that he was obligated by conference procedures to act as he did. He is probably right — but that is precisely the problem.

In recent years, two things have happened to the Presidents Conference: It has expanded to 52 members by taking in many small organizations with modest memberships, and it has developed a procedure of operating “by consensus.” This has come to mean that six or seven organizations, some of which may be quite small, can join together and prevent a “consensus” from being achieved. What this means in practice is that a distinct minority of right-wing groups can paralyze the conference on an issue even when overwhelming support exists in the community.

The result is that the Presidents Conference is on the fast track to irrelevance. It exists precisely for the purpose of enabling American Jews to express themselves on such questions as the Gaza disengagement — that is, on major policy issues on which there is strong but not unanimous support in the Jewish community. If the conference cannot do so, then it remains little more than a convenient forum for hosting visiting Israeli leaders. Procedural changes could be made that would make it easier for the majority to express itself, but these changes have been resisted for years by the conference staff.

Not a few Jewish leaders view the Presidents Conference’s decline with satisfaction, but such a response is premature. The truth is that American Jews need an umbrella body that does what the conference is supposed to do. Perhaps this latest fiasco will push conference members and leaders to consider reforms that are long overdue and desperately needed. If not, the Presidents Conference is on the road to oblivion, and other mechanisms will need to be found to express the will of the community.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie is president of the Union for Reform Judaism.






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