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New Labor Zionist Head Says American Jews Must Speak out

When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir addressed the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations more than a month ago, and warned American Jewish leaders about speaking out in criticism of Israel, Menachem Rosensaft was one of only two of those leaders to stand up and challenge the premier.

“A lot of people came up to me afterwards saying ‘We agree with you.’ I said ‘thank you,’ but told them I’d rather they had told Shamir that,” said Rosensaft.

As the newly-inducted president of the Labor Zionist Alliance, Rosensaft said he refuses to believe that in sharing the ideology of Israel’s Labor party, the LZA represents the minority opinion in the American Jewish community.

Rosensaft assumes the stewardship of the LZA — succeeding Ezra Spicehandler — after having founded and served as chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. He also chairs the executive committee of the World-Jewish Congress-American Section and the collections committee of the New York Holocaust Memorial Commission.

Sitting in his office a day after his induction at the LZA’s triennial convention, and a week before his fortieth birthday, the New York lawyer explained his views on the Zionist movement in general, and the Labor movement in particular.

But whatever the topic, whether speaking about the vision of Israel’s founding Laborites or what he called the “inaction” of his own organization over the past 10 years, he returned again and again to the subject of “speaking out.”

“During the past several decades. (Israel) had the tendency to view the Zionist organizations as merely a support body for Israel. Of course, that’s part of their role, but not their entire role,” he said.

‘PARTNERSHIP’ WITH ISRAEL

The “entire role,” he added, is more akin to a partnership. “To view the American Jewish community as nothing but a philanthropic arm or political rubber stamp . . . is both insulting and unrealistic.

“We support Israel fully and identify with her totally. But that does not mean we have to agree with every single decision or policy set by the government or a particular minister. Voicing our concerns does not indicate disloyalty.”

Shamir, he argued, “doesn’t purport to be apolitical on his trips to the U.S.” And if the Conference of Presidents nevertheless reaches a consensus to support the prime minister as the leader of Israel. “then it is the responsibility of those in the leadership of the liberal organizations to make our views heard there.”

The organizations Rosensaft referred to are members of a Labor-led coalition within the World Zionist Organization, including Americans for Progressive Israel; ARZA, the Reform Zionist Movement; Mercaz, the Conservative Zionist body; and Hadassah.

“If they don’t raise their voices loudly enough, ” he said, “the impression will be given that the other side is more powerful than it is.”

Rosensaft believes that more American Jews support Labor’s views than those of Israel’s right wing. But he acknowledged that there is a gap between the feelings of the American Jewish community and the low numbers actually joining his and other Zionist organizations. Attracting a young membership is “the” problem, he said, noting that the LZA’s membership “ranges from the 50s up.”

Rosensaft hopes to challenge educated, professionally successful young Jews with sophisticated programming that will include representation of all sides of the Middle East debate. Not everyone in the the organization will agree with that tactic, he said.

“I’m a litigator professionally. I believe in the interaction between groups who disagree on a subject,” said Rosensaft. “What is happening in Israel is a dialogue, a discussion. It should also take place here in the community.”

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