Friday, April 1, 2011

Then and Now: American Jews and Israel

Once upon a time, the shoe was on the other foot. This thought comes to mind as the rhetoric between American Jews and Israelis, of the right and the left, is now reaching such a crescendo that even mainstream columnists can't speak out without facing incredible heat. See especially recent articles by Gary Rosenblatt: When Israel Becomes A Source Of Embarrassment and J.J. Goldberg: We Have a Problem, but Rick Jacobs Isn’t It.

Read their articles, which are spot-on, but then read the comments afterwards. The anger is off the charts. Judging from my own experience, the comments we are reading are just the most mild and printable ones. I'm sure their newspapers tend to delete the ones that begin with "Now I know you're a moron!"

So much of it revolves on whether American Jews have a right to be critical of Israeli government policies and public. Let's look at what happened only a few years ago, when the shoe was on the other foot, when Israel's leaders went far - too far, one can say now - in the direction of accommodation, and the right wing dared to criticize, even unto the very halls of Congress.

Jews have a historical hatred of being told what to say, do and think. That's why it's so much fun being a rabbi, ostensibly one whose job is to teach Jews what to say and do (even rabbis don't dare venture into the murky territory of "think").

Right now, there's a chasm between what many American Jews are thinking and what Israel is doing. The least we can do is be respectful about what each side is saying.

See some history below:

By ALISON MITCHELL Published in the New York Times: September 30, 1995

Just hours after he signed a peace agreement with Yasir Arafat, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel moved on to another battle. In a meeting on Thursday with leaders of American Jewish groups, he sternly warned that lobbying against Israeli Government policies could cause a serious rift in Israel's relations with the Jewish community in the United States.

His rebuke, greeted by a wave of applause, was only a small part of the afternoon's discussion.

But it highlighted the fact that the pro-Israel lobby on Capitol Hill has increasingly found itself splintered by the recent peace efforts, with conservative Jewish groups going to the Congress with their concerns. "Never before have we witnessed an attempt by U.S. Jews to pressure Congress against the policies of a legitimate, democratically elected government," Mr. Rabin, the head of Israel's left-of-center Labor Government, lectured, according to several people at the meeting.

There has never been a shortage of political debate among American Jews. And in the 1980's, when the right-wing Likud Government was in power, some American Jews lobbied the Bush Administration to use loan guarantees as a lever against Israel's aggressive settlement policy on the West Bank.

But most mainstream Jewish organizations have historically stuck to the principle that internal dissent and political differences should not spill over into their lobbying efforts in Congress on behalf of the security policy set by the elected Government of Israel.

"It's not that people don't have a right to express themselves in responsible ways," said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, lobbying through American Israel Public Affairs Committee. But in matters of Israel's security, he said, "we support the right of the Government of Israel to make those decisions."

In the last month, however, a clear fissure has opened among Jewish groups over the conditions for providing American funds to the Palestine Liberation Organization for Gaza and the West Bank. The money was pledged in 1993 as part of an international aid effort after Israel and the P.L.O. struck the agreement that ended decades of enmity. Most of the mainstream Jewish organizations have mustered general support for the Administration's promise to provide the Palestinians with $500 million in aid and loan guarantees over five years.

They have rallied around a provision sponsored by Senator Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, that would extend for 12 months the waiver necessary for the United States to continue aid for the P.L.O.

The measure, which has passed the Senate as part of an international spending bill, also adds several restrictive conditions intended to insure that the P.L.O. has renounced terrorism and requires the P.L.O. to end financial support for agencies and offices in Jerusalem. The Administration and Israel have both said they can live with this.

But several Orthodox and conservative Jewish groups, sympathetic to the Likud party and the Jewish settler movement on the West Bank, have made common cause with conservatives and evangelical Christians to seek further restrictions.

Their proposals range from a six-month moratorium on the aid to a total cutoff, which is advocated by the Christians' Israel Public Action Committee, which believes that Jerusalem should be the undivided capital of Israel.

For now, Congress has approved a 45-day extension of the legislation. It allows aid for the P.L.O. so the money is not cut off while House and Senate conferees draft a joint version of an international spending bill.

But Congressional aides say that as the conference, proceeds they expect Mr. Gilman to maneuver for further restrictions in the Helms provision. "He's working with all the interested parties to achieve a strengthening in such a way that it will get enacted," said Gerald Lipson, the spokesman for Mr. Gilman's committee. He declined to say what further restrictions Mr. Gilman was seeking.

Such a move could be a major problem for the Clinton Administration, which on Thursday was trying to rally international donors to raise more money for development projects in the West Bank and Gaza. Administration and Israeli officials both suggest that further conditions on United States aid to the Palestinians could make the measure unacceptable.

"We wish they had not gone quite as far as they did in the Senate," said one American official.

"We would be very concerned if they got a lot tougher."


Yes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And see this exchange of NY Times Letters from that period, just after the murder of the Prime Minister:

U.S. Jewish Groups Abandoned Rabin November 14, 1995

To the Editor:

Thomas L. Friedman's Nov. 8 column taking to task American Jewish organizations for their failure to mobilize support for the peace policies of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel will undoubtedly bring on howls of protest. Mr. Friedman could not be more on target. Opponents of the peace process in the American Jewish community, including the Zionist Organization of America and Orthodox Jewish organizations, constitute altogether less than 10 percent of the American Jewish community.

Yet they had the field to themselves as they lobbied the United States Congress for the adoption of mischievous measures intended to undermine Mr. Rabin's efforts.

Gullible and uninformed members of Congress bought their line, in part because the larger established Jewish organizations were for the most part nowhere to be seen or heard. As Mr. Friedman notes, Prime Minister Rabin was contemptuous of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, at one time a significant voice for American Jewry with respect to United States Middle East policy, but now ineffective and irrelevant.

During the many years of Likud dominance in Israel, this organization zealously mobilized American Jewish support for the hawkish policies of Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. It has provided no such support for the peace policies of Israel's present government, largely because of the opposition to those policies by the dozen or so Orthodox organizations that are part of the conference.

The behavior of these Orthodox organizations, not one of which supports the Oslo accords, is at least consistent with their convictions. This cannot be said of the far larger and more representative pro-peace organizations who, in Mr. Friedman's words, left Mr. Rabin "alone on the battlefield."

But the most difficult battles lie ahead. As acting Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, who played so decisive a role as Prime Minister Rabin's partner in the peace process, prepares to oversee the implementation of the interim agreements and to plan negotiations for permanent settlement, American Jewish organizations will have ample occasion finally to join their pro-peace rhetoric to solid action.

HENRY SIEGMAN Director, U.S.-Middle East Project Council on Foreign Relations New York, Nov. 9, 1995

To the Editor:

Henry Siegman (letter, Nov. 14) misrepresents the positions of the Zionist Organization of America. The Z.O.A. has led the effort to persuade Congress to tighten the linkage between United States aid and Palestine Liberation Organization compliance with the Israel-P.L.O. peace accords.

Our position is not supported by "less than 10 percent of the American Jewish Community," as Mr. Siegman suggests.

According to an American Jewish Committee survey released Sept. 12, 63 percent of American Jews oppose further United States "economic aid to the Palestinians"; 30 percent support it.

MORTON A. KLEIN National President Zionist Organization of America New York, Nov. 21, 1995

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