WASHINGTON — Sometimes, it seems, even good news is bad news when it comes to organized Jewish life.
As Israel’s government prepares to pull out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank and resume talks with the Palestinians, American Jewish communal leaders are striving to protect their community from polarizing and to create a sense of consensus in support of Ariel Sharon’s government.
The concerns come against a backdrop of a dramatically changed landscape in the last half-year. The death of Yasser Arafat, the decline of Palestinian violence and especially the prospect of Israeli withdrawal from Gaza have swept away the consensus that had united virtually all the organized Jewish community behind the Israeli government over the last four-and-a-half years, since the outbreak of the intifada.
“When Israelis are being blown up in buses and discotheques, it is hard to have internal divisions,” said Martin Raffel, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “But when Yasser Arafat is dead and Mahmoud Abbas is talking about a cease-fire and getting the support of the international community and some positive things are being said by Israeli leaders, and the level of violence is diminishing, and they’re about to pull 8,000 Jews out of settlements, yes, the time is ‘ripe’ for internal divisions.”
Community leaders worry that vocal American Jewish opposition to Sharon’s disengagement plan may weaken the Israeli leader and harm peace efforts in the region. Opponents of the plan, though a minority, are highly mobilized, while supporters are not visibly mobilizing in force. Moreover, some leaders admit, they worry that the emergence of a vocal opposition to Sharon — even if it represents a minority — could weaken their own claim to represent the broader Jewish community when lobbying Washington on a variety of issues.
The issue was thrown into sharper relief in recent days with the approach of the annual Israel mission of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, beginning next week. While there, the group, including some 50 senior executives of Jewish groups, was planning to express public support for the Israeli government and its policies, said the conference’s executive vice chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein. “It’s important to send a message [to the Israeli public] of support for the democratically elected government of Israel and also to the American public, especially on issues of security and defense,” Hoenlein said. He said that the conference will articulate a similar public message when it returns to America.
The Presidents Conference had been criticized last spring and summer by some of its members, including Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, for being slow to line up behind Sharon’s plan.
But as the Presidents Conference expresses support for Sharon, at least one of its members is actively lobbying against his government’s policies.
The Zionist Organization of America recently has intensified its public campaign opposing the Gaza withdrawal plan and the emerging détente in Israel’s relations with the Palestinian Authority. The ZOA is both campaigning within the community and lobbying Congress, hoping to build opposition to the plan. It argues that withdrawing from territories and dismantling settlements amounts to rewarding terrorists, at a time when both Israel and America are fighting terrorism.
The ZOA was the driving force behind several recent statements and letters from members of Congress opposing direct American funding for the P.A. It also had input into statements by several members of Congress that criticized Abbas for statements seen as inflammatory.
Several other American Jewish organizations have voiced opposition to the plan, including the National Council of Young Israel and some smaller groups, but none is known to be lobbying actively against it.
At the other end of the Jewish political spectrum, American Friends of Peace Now sent a letter to President Bush last week, urging him not to provide American funding to pay for proposed high-tech crossing points in Israel’s security barrier in the West Bank. Such funding, the APN letter said, would signal support for “Israeli settlement activity and the perpetuation of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.” In addition, funding such a project would “undermine the credibility of the argument that the security barrier is only temporary in nature, and not a permanent addition to the West Bank,” the letter said.
Last week, the issue spilled over onto the pages of the Forward, which published an advertisement that caused a controversy all its own. The ad, submitted by the head of the Washington district of the ZOA — without approval from the organization’s national office — drew parallels between the disengagement plan and the Holocaust and implicitly likened the Israeli government to Nazis. (For more on this, please see letters and a related editorial, Page 8.)
Next month, the disagreements will go beyond letters to the president and ads in newspapers. The first formal test of efforts to hammer out a new, community-wide consensus around Sharon’s plan will come at the annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which will convene in Washington during the last weekend of February. The council brings together 13 national Jewish agencies and 123 local community councils for consultation on policy issues. Votes at its annual meeting, while not binding, are considered a weathervane of national community sentiment.
“We really need to ask ourselves what can the responsible, mainstream, Jewish leaders do here to discuss these issues responsibly, to reach some understandings, to prevent irresponsible rhetoric and irresponsible activity within our own community, and to also encourage our brothers and sisters in Israel to act and speak responsibly. That’s our challenge,” Raffel said.
Last year’s council meeting did not include a single debate on the Middle East. In contrast, this year, Sharon’s plan and the possible resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace diplomacy will be discussed at the JCPA plenum both formally — through a panel debate and a resolution submitted for a vote — and informally, in small-group workshops, the group’s executives said. Discussion will focus not only on ways to “seize opportunities for peace and advance the rule of law” in Israel, executive director Hannah Rosenthal said, but also on whether and how “American Jews and Arab Americans can work together for peace.”
Of particular concern to Jewish communal leaders is that American Jews opposing the Gaza withdrawal plan might encourage — either by actions or words — threats of right-wing Israeli militants to resort to violence to obstruct the uprooting of Jewish settlements.
“Frankly, what is necessary that we do in our own community is what we tell everybody else in other communities to do when there is incitement and hate and extremism,” said ADL’s Foxman. “We must urge people in leadership positions in our community to speak out continuously and say that this is not the way.”
“Being silent when things like that come up is not the answer,” Raffel said. “Vacuums get filled, and if we don’t fill the vacuum with responsible speech and activity it will be filled by others to the detriment of Israel.”