You’re Right Too

Published February 28, 2003, issue of February 28, 2003.
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The leadership of Reform Judaism was right to bring its resolution on settlements and Palestinian statehood before the Jewish Council for Public Affairs at the council’s annual meeting this week in Baltimore. And the council was right to reject the Reform text.

The Reform leaders were right because raising the topic was a courageous, principled step. Their draft resolution was correct on the substance. Raising it now sends an important message to the Bush administration, the Sharon government and the broader political community that American Jews are capable of acting with independence and integrity in the political arena. In today’s charged atmosphere, with accusations of Jewish influence and dual loyalty flooding the mainstream media, that can’t be said strongly enough. The American Jewish community is Israel’s best friend and ally, but it is nobody’s stooge.

At the same time, the council’s vote to reject the resolution was the smart, pragmatic thing to do. Passage of the resolution would have polarized and splintered the council, undermining its ability to act cohesively on matters on which the members do agree. Precisely because the current atmosphere is so charged, wisdom demanded that the council back away from a direct confrontation on the issues that so divide it and find the common denominator around which a consensus can be built. That is what it did.

To be sure, there’s something odd about a political debate in which those who endorse the positions of the Bush administration and the Sharon government — a vision of Middle East peace based on territorial compromise and eventual Palestinian statehood — end up being portrayed as the dovish opposition. The logic, for many opponents of compromise, seems to be that whatever is good for the Palestinians must be bad for Israel.

We don’t believe that sort of cramped thinking reflects the mainstream of the Jewish public that these organizations are supposed to represent. Most American Jews have been willing for years to countenance Israeli compromise in return for peace. The adoption of that approach by leaders in Washington and Jerusalem can only reinforce the moderate leanings of the grassroots community. To paint those views as somehow disloyal or anti-Israel is ludicrous.

In real life, however, saying exactly what you think isn’t always smart politics. International diplomacy is a fluid, volatile process in which words and gestures have ripple effects far beyond their immediate surface intent. Right now Israel’s government is engaged in a tense, many-sided diplomatic dance involving the Palestinians, Americans, Europeans, Egyptians and a welter of domestic Israeli players. For American Jews to come out at this moment against settlements or in favor of Palestinian statehood would not be read as a simple statement of principle. It would amount to a new pressure on Jerusalem.

Some community leaders aspire, quite legitimately, to play that role, believing it to be in Israel’s best interest. But others — including many who favor Palestinian statehood in principle — do not want to be put in the position, as they see it, of helping tilt the levers toward Israel’s adversaries. It’s right to play that argument out in private debates and public maneuvering by the various organizations. It’s a mistake, though, to try settling it within the framework of a fragile structure like the public affairs council.

Over the centuries American Jews have repeatedly attempted to create central councils to bring together their various factions for joint action. Time and again those councils have collapsed because one faction or another insisted on winning a narrow victory and driving out the minority.

Democracy depends for its survival on a measure of mutual respect and civility among its players. Respect for the system must, except in rare cases, take precedence over even the most urgent of causes. That’s especially the case in a voluntary system like the Jewish community, in which majorities have no power to impose their will and minorities are free to walk away.

There can be no democracy unless minorities agree to lose gracefully. No less important, majorities must occasionally agree not to win.

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