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AJCommittee Leader Defends His Organization’s Rejection of ‘a Single Issue Agenda’

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The American Jewish Committee’s firm rejection of "a single issue agenda" for American Jews–"the assertion that there is only one issue for Jews, and that issue is Israel"– was vigorously defended Thursday by David Gordis, executive vice president of the pioneer human relations organization at its 80th anniversary annual meeting here.

Addressing 500 delegates from around the country at a plenary session at the J.W. Marriott Hotel, Gordis also spoke out strongly for the AJC’s traditional policy of non-partisanship in political matters and its commitment to pluralism in all aspects of Jewish life. The annual meeting began Wednesday and continues through Sunday.

Gordis noted: "The validity of our traditional AJC agenda has been challenged recently by powerful and prominent voices urging a sharp narrowing of Jewish concerns. More and more frequently in Jewish organizational life we hear the assertion that the only issue for Jews is Israel — that statements and positions on Israel are the sole criteria by which political candidates should be judged or supported, financially or otherwise, without regard to other issues."

But, he added, "Our support for Israel gains in effectiveness because we are recognized not as narrow advocates of self-interest, but as fully involved participants in the full range of American and international issues."

QUESTIONABLE OVERNIGHT JEWISH HEROES

In that connection, Gordis pointed out that "Political and religious leaders whose views on the separation of church and state, on matters of social policy and other public concerns run counter to the views of most American Jews — and may even threaten vital Jewish interests here and abroad — are transformed overnight into Jewish heroes on the basis of a carefully crafted statement or two supportive of Israel."

He observed: "Alliances are urged, and political alignments are pressed upon the Jewish community on the basis of this single issue. The separation of church and state, we are told, is not that important; Israel needs all the friends she can get, whatever the price paid for this friendship. Is the nation weighing policy alternatives regarding the levels of military appropriations and the funding of social programs? We are assured that we need not concern ourselves with determining a proper balance among national priorities or make painful choices.

"There is just a single principle to be applied: It is inconsistent for those who advocate support for Israel to oppose any military program at any time….We are relieved of the need to consider vital issues carefully and to advocate what we feel is best for our country and for the world."

Continuing, Gordis declared: "Our commitment to Israel’s strength, security and vitality is unshakable. Our efforts to promote understanding of and support for Israel’s needs are wide and deep, as is our determination to strengthen Israel-diaspora relationships and increase intergroup understanding inside Israel…

"But our credibility is rooted in the breadth of our concerns as Americans and as Jews. Our support for Israel derives both from our Jewish consciousness and from our commitment to American and its democratic values…. We reject out of hand the notion that our Jewish and general loyalties are in conflict with one another."

THE NATURE OF THE CONFUSION

The AJC, Gordis said, has "no quarrel with organizations that focus exclusively on pro-Israel advocacy. We support AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and participate in its work. What we reject is the confusion of that portion of the Jewish agenda, important as it is, with the whole …."

Gordis recalled that American Jews have always "pursued justice and compassion in line with the authentic spirit and teachings of our heritage." In that context, he noted that American Jews have participated in movements to protect and extend human rights and improve intergroup relations and thereby "have made an indelible contribution to the growth and enhancement of American life."

"I am convinced," he said, "that the overwhelming majority of American Jews remains committed to that participation — even though some influential leaders, who have grown disheartened because these efforts are sometimes painful and never easy, urge us to turn away from our traditional social concerns and to formulate our positions in the narrowest self-interest."

PRESSURE TO CONFORM

Gordis said that the AJC has also come under pressure to conform to "a pattern of political alignment" developed by national Jewish agencies in recent years. "Some American Jewish leaders have found it expedient to indicate broad Jewish support for one or another policy of the current administration, even when there is little evidence of such support.

"Advocates of partisanship in Jewish public life argue that a political party or administration will only support Jewish interests if American Jews articulate their support for that party or administration’s goals and ideology. We challenge that assertion."

Gordis said the AJC believes strongly "that Jews should be represented all across the American political spectrum. But we believe that Jewish organizations must stand apart from, and above, partisan politics. Our policy positions must be determined through the careful analysis of the issues and in light of our broad interests, value and objectives, not by the need to conform to any party line."

Gordis asserted, "Our commitment to Jewish pluralism is one reason for our serious concern about the intensification of tensions among the religious ideological groups in Jewish life. Political realities in Israel have exacerbated these tensions in the United States, and we are working hard to bring together individuals from the different groups, both here and in Israel, who seek to restore civility to Jewish interrelationships.

"Unless we can close the fissures that have developed, we face the possible bifurcation of the Jewish people and the emergence of two different Jewish communities that will not intermarry and will barely interact except in conflict. It is vital that we apply our human relations and bridge-building skills to this most ominous challenge now facing us."

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