WASHINGTON — America’s largest synagogue movement is urging the White House to step up its peace efforts in the Middle East and calling on Congress to refrain from passing one-sided pro-Israel resolutions.
The policy recommendations were outlined this week in a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell from Rabbi David Saperstein, the Reform movement’s top representative in Washington. Citing a sweeping resolution passed last month by the Reform governing board, the letter states that the administration must “match” its public support for Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal plan with a “vigorous” effort to bring the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
Saperstein’s letter also criticizes Congress for passing pro-Israel resolutions that “fail to recognize the need for withdrawal to be directly linked to a return to the negotiating table” and “fail to address the troubling humanitarian conditions of the Palestinians.” And the letter mentions the movement’s opposition to the “Israeli government’s policy of administrative home demolitions [relating to zoning violations], which is most often applied… discriminatorily against the Arabs.”
Both the letter and resolution outline the Reform movement’s strong support for Sharon’s general plan to pull out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank, in addition to offering severe criticisms of the Palestinians.
Still, the movement’s new policy statements mark a major break from the unqualified support that almost all major Jewish organizations have voiced for the alliance between Sharon and President Bush.
Liberal activists stressed the importance of such sentiments being officially voiced by the leadership of the Union for Reform Judaism, which says it represents 900 congregations and 1.5 million followers.
“It is a hugely significant development, because this is the largest group of affiliated Jews in America,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, which has criticized Sharon for failing to do more to pursue an agreement. “It makes you question who represents the majority view of America’s Jews.”
“I am thrilled to hear the Reform movement coming out with this position because I think the whole Jewish community has disengaged from the issue” of the peace process, said Kenneth Bob, president of the Labor Zionist Alliance.
The letter also drew harsh criticism. “There is no mention whatsoever [in the letter] of the lack of transparency, the lack of reform, the lack of dealing with security” on the part of the Palestinian leadership, said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a defender of Sharon’s policies. “It means for the U.S. to become the interlocutor, but with whom? Who is America supposed to push Sharon to negotiate with?”
Foxman also objected to Saperstein’s decision to criticize pro-Israel congressional resolutions for not being sufficiently balanced.
Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, told the Forward that the Reform movement’s position was “unfairly critical of Israel.”
“It promotes pressure on Israel and has the effect of undermining congressional support for it,” said Klein, who frequently has criticized Sharon for agreeing to withdraw from any territory. Saperstein’s letter to Powell, Klein added, “only marginalizes the Reform movement and makes it a part of the extreme left.”
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, rejected this characterization of Jewish public opinion. “There are those in the Jewish community who have either said or implied that they are not [eager] for the negotiations to be renewed. And that is not our position,” Yoffie told the Forward. “We wanted to make clear — as the largest grass-roots Jewish organization in North America — that it’s not our position; and that we believe — I would humbly suggest — that the centrist, mainstream position is our position.”
Saperstein, who, as head of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, is Yoffie’s chief lieutenant in Washington, told the Forward that he believes negotiations for a peace settlement — not just discussions on how to coordinate an Israeli pullout — must resume immediately, without waiting for a reformed Palestinian leadership to emerge. This position contradicts Sharon’s refusal to negotiate with Palestinian leaders who Sharon says are tainted by terrorism, corruption and their links to Yasser Arafat. Sharon contends that his unilateral initiative is a result of his inability to engage effectively with a Palestinian government led by Arafat.
But, Saperstein countered: “Any time you’re sitting at the table, it’s an opportunity” that could eventually lead to peace between Israelis and Palestinians. “We want to encourage that,” Saperstein said. He insisted that Palestinian interlocutors could be found, even now. He warned that Sharon’s unilateral approach — absent negotiations — could end up deluding Israelis, particularly on the right, into believing that they can gain security without negotiating with the Palestinians.
Asked if the Reform movement’s resolution contradicts Sharon’s policies or undermines them, Saperstein replied: “It is not clear what the official policy [of Israel’s government] is. We know only what is on the surface, what’s being said. We are trying to see that the policies are structured in a way that strengthens the peace process rather than weakens it, strengthens Palestinian moderates rather than weakens them. These are things that we want to encourage [Israel] to be pushing for, and not to give in to hardliners in the Israeli scene.”