NEW YORK (Jan. 26)
The American Jewish Congress sharply criticized Israel’s stated policy of beating Palestinian Arabs in the administered territories, saying Tuesday that the “brutalization of innocents” must “not only be stopped immediately, but repudiated, if Israel is to preserve its good name.”
Henry Siegman, the group’s executive director, condemned the Israeli policy Tuesday evening as he and other members of an AJCongress delegation returned here from a 10-day trip to the Middle East that included meetings with Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who announced the beatings policy last week, as well as Egyptian, Jordanian and other Israeli leaders.
In taking the tough stance, the group joined a small chorus of prominent American Jews who have spoken out against the beatings policy.
But even as it did so, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations prepared to release a statement Wednesday, which sources close to the umbrella group say will indicate the American Jewish community’s support for Israeli efforts to contain the violence that has spread throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip since early December.
The conference, which represents 40 American Jewish groups, convened in an emergency session Monday to discuss the beatings policy. The group planned to release an official statement on the matter Wednesday morning and refused to divulge its position before then.
OTHERS TO TAKE SOFTER LINE
But sources say the Presidents Conference will take a much softer line than that expressed Tuesday by AJCongress and earlier in the week by such leaders as Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
On Sunday, Schindler cabled Israeli President Chaim Herzog, calling the beatings policy “an offense to the Jewish spirit” that “violates every principle of human decency” and “betrays the Zionist dream.”
The AJCongress delegation appeared to go even further Tuesday in a statement Siegman read upon the group’s arrival at Kennedy International Airport.
“There are certain lines that no civilized society can allow itself to cross, even in the face of extreme provocations,” said Siegman. “These ugly beatings are such a line. They must not only be stopped immediately, but repudiated, if Israel is to preserve its good name.”
Siegman said the AJCongress group met with Rabin for an hour Monday and told him that his “explanation of the so-called policy of beatings is simply unacceptable.”
The group conveyed its view that certain forms of deterrents and punishments are “inherently illegitimate and evil. It is in the nature of these brutal and bloody beatings that they cannot be contained,” said Siegman.
“As we have seen, they inevitably spread beyond the riots and the rioters, and victimize innocent people. Such brutalization of innocents cannot simply be dismissed by characterizing them as exceptions.”
The group’s position appeared to be sharply at odds with the consensus reached at Monday’s Presidents Conference meeting. According to a participant in the session, who asked not to be identified, the overriding sentiment was that the organized Jewish community should not come out with a statement criticizing Israeli policy.
‘DISASTROUS PUBLIC RELATIONS’
The participant said that while there was concern expressed about “the disastrous public relations effect” of the policy, there was nevertheless “a strong feeling that we have to stand behind Israel.”
According to Abraham Foxman, who attended the meeting on behalf of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, “a consensus was reached that there has to be an understanding of Israeli policy — not a carte blanche, but we’re not in a position to tell the world that it is immoral.”
Foxman, who is ADL’s national director, said in a telephone interview that “while (the beatings) are painful to watch, we have at least an understanding that Israel has a responsibility to survive.”
Also attending the meeting was Paul Flacks, executive vice president of the Zionist Organization of America. Flacks said that “outside of one or two people who felt the need to caution Israel,” the meeting was “quiet” with “really no debate. There was really a very strong feeling of unity.”
“American Jews should not be embarrassed by what is taking place,” said Flacks. “Even if Israel acted ‘correctly,’ how would that affect the Arabs toward making peace?”
A similar range of feelings was expressed by leaders who did not attend the Presidents Conference meeting.
Seymour Reich, president of B’nai B’rith International, said that his organization would “deplore” beatings that appear indiscriminate in nature and would urge Israeli authorities to refrain from such conduct “if in fact it’s happening that way.”
RABIN ‘GOOLED IT UP’
Reached in Washington, where the 170 member B’nai B’rith Board of Governors is meeting Reich said Rabin had “goofed it up” in his candid announcement of the Israeli strong-arm tactics. But he also pointed out that Israel has been rebuffed in its efforts to seek peace in the Middle East.
Perhaps the strongest statement of support for Israeli policies came from Joseph Puder, executive director of Americans for a Safe Israel.
“We believe that Israel should use whatever methods regardless of what might be construed as ‘uncivil’ on the part of other countries,” said Puder, adding that it is “hypocritical for American Jews and others to tell Israel how to deal with a basically defensive matter.”
“The government changed its policy to allow soldiers to charge ahead, and, as the Bible says, to defend yourself from those who would kill you,” he said.
By contrast, members of New Jewish Agenda, a left-wing group that claims to have 4,500 members, held a vigil Monday, across from the Israeli Consulate in New York, to protest the violent tactics used to contain the unrest.
According to David Coyne, the group’s executive director, protesters delivered a letter to the consulate calling on Israel to stop the beatings and “move toward a negotiated compromise that will end the bloodshed.”
Coyne said 15 members of Agenda have begun a five-day fast to protest what he called “an inevitable outcome of occupation and conditions under occupation.”
But despite spoken and unspoken concern over the tough Israeli policies, fund-raising efforts on behalf of Israel do not yet seem to have been affected.
According to Raphael Rothstein, vice president of programming for the United Jewish Appeal, the annual campaign is “doing quite well” and people are generously supporting humanitarian and social programs.
“Super Sunday was very successful. The response was excellent,” said Rothstein, describing a series of one-day fund-raising events held in a number of Jewish communities on Jan. 24.