American Jews have a long tradition, going back to the early days of the Republic, of laying aside their differences in times of crisis and speaking out with one voice to defend their brethren in other lands. That tradition has become an 11th commandment in the half-century since the birth of the sovereign State of Israel. Jews here have made the struggles of that embattled nation their own, even creating a network of institutions to bring their host of famously squabbling factions to heel in solidarity with Israel. In this they have been guided by one principle: respecting the right of Israel’s democratically elected government to make its own decisions.
That honorable tradition suffered a body blow this week with the failure of the most important of those unifying institutions, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, to stand up and speak out clearly in support of Israel’s most important diplomatic initiative in years, the Gaza disengagement plan.
Under pressure for months to do its job and give a voice to the moderate majority of American Jews who support the moderate majority in Israel, the conference dithered. Its hand was finally forced by the Anti-Defamation League, which began circulating its own rump declaration among the other organizations for signatures. After the Presidents Conference finally convened a general membership meeting October 14 and all sides were heard, the conference’s leaders punted once again. They did this despite an unusually blunt appeal for support from Israel’s ambassador in Washington; despite a show of hands indicating that the vast majority of organizations represented, including nearly all the biggest groups, wanted a statement, and despite the conference’s long tradition of standing by Israel’s elected leaders. Instead, buckling in the face of opposition from a noisy minority, they came up with a lamely worded statement noting that most of their members favored the Sharon initiative — a version of the old joke about the committee that “voted 4 to 3 to wish you a speedy recovery.”
Opponents of disengagement have come up with a variety of excuses for thwarting the will of the majority, many of them echoing the positions of their ideological soul mates in Israel and the territories. Some claim the plan will endanger Israel’s security, an issue they seem to think they understand better than Israel’s own generals. Some of those same self-appointed experts also claim, paradoxically, that American Jewry should not speak out on a matter that Israel has not decided democratically, and that a decision by the Israeli Cabinet does not qualify as a democratic decision. Some go so far as to echo the more extreme opponents in Israel who insist that “expelling Jews from their homes,” their term for dismantling settlements, is an extreme measure — some call it a human rights violation — that requires no less than a national referendum.
There’s more than a touch of chutzpah in all this newfound concern on the right for the delicacies of Israeli democratic procedure. No referenda were needed to put those settlements there in the first place. No referenda were needed to annex East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights. For that matter, no plebiscite was demanded before the razing of Israeli homes to build the Ayalon Highway into downtown Tel Aviv — nor, dare we say, before the home demolitions that have left some 16,000 Palestinians homeless in Gaza in the last four years, according to a report issued this week by Human Rights Watch.
As for the Presidents Conference, it has managed through four decades of war and peace to endorse every manner of Israeli action, whether it was the work of the Knesset or of a brigade commander in Jenin. When Israel needed backup, the conference was there. When controversies arose — over expanding settlements, or pushing into Lebanon — that appeared to put Israel at odds with the liberal mainstream of American Jewry, the conference found a way to forge a consensus, and the liberals went along for Zion’s sake.
Home-wrecking, it’s clear, is not the real issue. Neither are the niceties of democracy, whether Jewish communal or Israeli. The issue is Israel’s need to separate from the Palestinians, and the right’s unwillingness to go accept the verdict of the majority.
Israel currently faces a crisis — diplomatic, military, demographic and moral — that is as great as any it has ever faced. Prime Minister Sharon has put in motion a plan that, however imperfect, offers the beginning of an exit from the quagmire. The vast majority of the Israeli public is behind him. It’s past time for Israel’s friends in America to stand up and be counted.