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Let Cease-fire Arm Voices of Mideast Moderation

At last, a flicker of hope on the peace front. The cease-fire, we fervently pray, will hold. A flicker of hope, and a welcome opportunity to reenergize American Jews, particularly those of moderate views, and to engage them more intensively in the search for peace.

In recent months I have visited congregations large and small in every part of this country, and wherever I went I found Jews deeply concerned about Israel. Most were centrist in outlook but far from naïve. Along with the majority of Israelis, they realize there is no simple path to peace, and that whatever mistakes governments of Israel may have made over the years, Israel is not responsible for the years of suicide bombings, the rise to power of Hamas, and the rocket fire from Gaza. The simple fact is that the Palestinians have brought most of their misery upon their own heads.

Nonetheless, these Jews, lovers of Israel all, have been profoundly concerned. They have agonized over the violence in Gaza and the West Bank and the growing threat posed by Iran. They are worried about what they hear from their neighbors, who are fed up with American losses in Iraq and are inching toward isolationism.

They are worried, too, about last month’s 20 civilian casualties at Beit Hanoun in Gaza, resulting from errant Israeli shells. No matter how infuriating the double standard to which the Jewish state is held, they know that the gruesome images still inflict enormous damage to Israel’s standing. And they are worried as well about Jewish leaders in New York who do an expert job at making Israel’s case but who seem to talk mostly to themselves and who offer no solutions and little hope.

These Jews have not wavered an inch in their dedication to Israel. Some, sadly, have become fatalistic about the future. Most, however, are looking for ways to make a difference. With the cease-fire at hand, I would like to offer three specific steps that I believe to be essential for Jews of the center and the moderate left to take at this time.

First, call for direct American involvement in solving the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The United States should not impose a settlement, but only Washington has the credibility and the power to create the conditions for negotiations and diplomatic progress. Always desirable, American involvement is now essential, and serves both American and Israeli interests.

The United States needs a way out of Iraq and a strategy to contain the Iranian threat. Both goals require the assistance of the more pragmatic Arab states, which now see Iran as more of a danger than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Washington, therefore, should exploit this moment to work with moderate Arab leaders and search for a common strategy both to promote Palestinian flexibility and to counter Iranian influence. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit to the Middle East this week is the perfect opportunity to capitalize on the cease-fire and push for additional progress between Israel and the Palestinian leadership.

It is bizarre that the right-wing Jewish leaders who demand American action against Iran fail to comprehend that progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front will make such action far more likely. It is also bizarre that the same leaders who proclaim, correctly, that President Bush is the most fervently pro-Israel president in Israel’s history do not trust him to take a more active role on the diplomatic front. If any president has earned our trust as a friend of Israel, it is this one.

It may be that Palestinian leaders will resist Arab pressure for change and that American efforts will fail. Still, the grim realities that have prevailed until this week suggest that there is little to lose from an American diplomatic initiative. American Jews should be in the forefront of urging our president to take action now. Second, vigorously oppose extremist voices in the Jewish community, both here and in Israel.

It has long been true that Palestinian rejectionism and terrorism generate extremist positions in our own ranks. It is not surprising, perhaps, that voices of moderation tend to fall silent at such times, but it is dangerous nonetheless. Silence can be mistaken for acquiescence and can undermine the moral foundations of our community.

A case in point is the recent attempt to keep communal dollars raised by Jewish federations from being spent to help Israel’s Arab and Druze citizens. When federation dollars were allocated to Israeli Arabs whose villages suffered nearly 50% of the Israeli fatalities during this summer’s war with Hezbollah, several major Jewish groups responded with outrage. One stated that “money raised from Jews because of a war against Jews should only be used for Jews.”

The reaction of the Jewish press to these statements usually involved carefully balanced articles, weighing the arguments on each side. The explanations emanating from the United Jewish Communities leadership were deeply distressing; instead of proudly defending their allocations to Israel’s Arab citizens, they offered defensive assurances that the allocations were only a tiny percentage of overall expenditures. It is almost as if the message was: “Don’t worry. We didn’t spend much for the Arabs and we won’t do it again.”

Let us be clear: Not only was the opposition to these allocations an affront to Jewish tradition, as David Ellenson argued in these pages, it came perilously close to Jewish racism. For 16 years, the Jewish community in the United States worked together to fight the “Zionism is racism” resolution of the United Nations, proclaiming again and again that Israel is a country of and for all of its citizens. How exactly is that consistent with the message that when katyusha rockets are falling on the Jewish state, killing Muslims, Christians and Jews, we will extend help to Jews alone?

And to say that aiding Israeli Arabs in a time of war is the responsibility of Israel’s government but not of Jews elsewhere is a dodge. We who proudly proclaim the importance of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel cannot sever ourselves from the obligations that such sovereignty imposes. If we let those who hold these views speak in our name and shape the public debate, Israel’s cause will suffer a devastating blow.

Third, even when a lasting peace remains a distant prospect, we need continually to affirm the first principles that tie us, as Jews and Americans, to Israel. Too many in our community, preferring to focus on Arab fanaticism, choose to remain silent on these principles, even though they are shared by most Israelis.

And the principles are easily stated: We demand that the children of Sderot, who for years have lived under the daily threat of rocket attacks, be guaranteed the right to play and sleep in peace, and that a similar guarantee be extended to every Israeli child; and we demand that the Palestinians put an end to terrorism and eject, once and for all, the radicals and killers from their midst.

At the same time, and without contradiction, we respect the aspirations of the Palestinian people for independence, and we see a two-state solution as the only viable answer to the current crisis; we know that additional Israeli settlement beyond the security fence will make such a solution impossible and will condemn Israelis and Palestinians to an endless hell of war and death; and we know that even when our enemies are prepared to stoop to any level to kill Jews, in our fight against them we must adhere to our own values, which respect the sacredness of every life.

Yes, we are aware of Hamas’s murderous ways, but it is not enough to speak only of its crimes. With the rocket fire partially halted and a slender ray of hope on the horizon, now is the time to remind ourselves and our children of the peace that we pray for and of the values that we hold, and to remind our fellow citizens, who are tiring of the Middle East quagmire, why we ask their backing for the Jewish state.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie is president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

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