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The Agency’s Pride

The Jewish Agency for Israel is to be saluted for its decision last week to help build new communities in Israel for settlers to be evacuated from Gaza in the coming months. In taking part in this venture, the Jewish Agency continues its historic role as a builder and shaper of the Jewish state. American Jews, who provide much of the agency’s funding through the United Jewish Appeal and its affiliated Jewish federations, have long taken pride in the part that their donations and hard work have played in the rebirth of Jewish nationhood. They should be just as proud of their role in this new step, which will begin to provide Israel with a defensible border and, just perhaps, begin a process of reconciliation with its neighbors.

It is all the more regrettable, then, that the agency’s governing board decided to eliminate any mention of the Gaza disengagement plan from the resolution in which it affirmed its role in implementing the disengagement. As passed, the resolution simply calls on the agency to help build new communities in the Negev and Galilee, for future residents unknown. The amended version allows the agency to proceed with its work, but it strips the action of its symbolic meaning, hiding behind euphemisms and half-truths as though seeking peace and security were something shameful.

The proposal to build the new communities originally came in the form of a direct request from Prime Minister Sharon, who asked the delegates in an address on June 20 to “take part in the challenge of relocating settlements to the Negev and the Galilee.” Disengaging from Gaza, Sharon said, “gives the people of Israel hope for a better future. And in this country we do not underestimate the power of hope.”

When Sharon’s request came to the agency’s 24-member executive committee on June 23, however, a handful of hawks objected that dismantling settlements in Gaza and the West Bank ran counter to the Zionist nation-building mission the agency had championed for nearly a century. They were outvoted, but the objections colored the debate that followed later that day in the 120-member board of governors, which has the formal decision-making power. As Nathaniel Popper reports on Page 1, moderates were as eager as hawks to steer clear of “partisan” and “divisive” Israeli political disputes such as the one swirling around Sharon’s disengagement plan. And so they passed the resolution but blanked out Sharon’s historic disengagement.

There’s nothing new in the notion that the Jewish Agency, as a philanthropic body uniting Jews across national and ideological lines, should try to avoid partisan disputes. But the idea that such delicacy might prevent the agency from supporting the government of Israel in a historic and hugely popular initiative is very new.

It’s worth recalling that two decades ago, the same logic led the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency’s parent body and half-owner, to precisely the opposite conclusion. The WZO is a confederation of ideological and religious factions around the world, and is governed by a World Zionist Congress that convenes in Jerusalem every four years, following elections in Jewish communities across the globe. In December 1983, delegates to the World Zionist Congress approved a resolution ending the WZO’s participation in building settlements in the territories. Since the WZO was at the time the Israeli government’s primary settlement-building vehicle, the vote nearly caused an Israeli constitutional crisis. The crisis was averted following all-night talks in which American delegates were browbeaten into switching their votes. They were told that American Jews had no right to enter into “partisan” Israeli disputes by disagreeing with government policy.

Looking at the two votes — opting out of settlement construction in 1983, opting into settlement relocation in 2004 — it appears that the definition of “partisan” has shifted. Back then, “partisan” meant going against the Israeli government. Now it means going along with the government. Either way, the real common denominator is this: that liberals are not supposed to win a vote, even when they have a majority.

American Jews have a right to take pride in the role they and their institutions play in helping Israel move forward. The majority of American Jews, like the majority of Israelis, supports disengagement. They should not let extremist minorities bully them into shamefaced silence.

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