JERUSALEM (Mar. 21)
Except for a smattering of dissent, the Jewish solidarity conference that began Tuesday in Jerusalem seemed to accomplish what it set out to do: express to the world an allegiance between Jews in the Diaspora and the government of Israel.
In a carefully orchestrated conference designed to minimize any public dissent, government leaders and private individuals alike nevertheless addressed many controversial issues facing Israel. In doing so, they allayed the fears of many left-leaning Jews who felt that this conference would be a rubber stamp of the policies of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Some dissent was registered, however, as six demonstrators were arrested outside Binyenei Ha’uma on Monday night, allegedly for making it difficult for guests to enter the convention hall.
The overwhelming majority of delegates who came to the conference, however, were strongly supportive of Shamir’s policies.
“They all came here with predisposed minds, and most of them came with the position which they will leave with,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“But what they did,” added Hoenlein, “was come together and say that, despite those differences, we can come together, and we are a united Jewish community, and we stand in solidarity with Israel.”
A CALL FOR ARAB SELF-RULE
Even those who in the past might have been critical of the government’s policies expressed their support.
“A solidarity conference does not demand a uniformity on ideas,” said Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. “Israel is a feisty democracy, and open debate rages within this free land.”
While there was no open debate at the conference as such, government figures and Diaspora leaders expressed a range of views on such topics as the unity of the Jewish people, the Palestinian uprising in the territories, negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization, the “Who Is a Jew” controversy and electoral reform.
Discussing the peace process, Vice Premier Shimon Peres took a swipe at Shamir’s approach. “There was a time when we could have started from the Jordanian end,” said the Labor Party leader. “Now we have to start from the Palestinian end.”
Toward that end, Peres suggested Palestinian self-rule in the “densely populated Arab territories,” including the running of their own institutions, “from legislation to health, from education to agriculture.”
But Peres also said that existing Jewish settlements would not be dismantled, causing Shamir to raise his eyebrows.
‘FACE THE FUTURE TOGETHER’
Shamir, who began Tuesday morning’s plenary sessions with a 22-minute address, outlined some of the problems facing Israel, including the uprising in the territories, how to approach the peace process and calls for the creation of a Palestinian state run by the PLO.
Such a state, Shamir said, “would not advance peace. It would be the opposite of peace. It could only produce the peace of the cemetery.”
But the Likud leader focused mostly on the theme of the conference, which had more to do with image than substance.
“We need the unity and solidarity of all our people,” Shamir said, pounding on the podium.
“We need the word to go out from here to the capitals of the world that the Jewish people is not divided, the Jewish people is not weakened, the Jewish people is responding to Israel’s call and will face the future together with Israel.”
Many of the dozen hand-picked speakers who followed Shamir with short speeches of their own echoed the prime minister’s remarks on solidarity with Israel.
The speakers included Mendel Kaplan, chairman of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors; Seymour Reich, chairman of the Conference Presidents; and Martin Stein, chairman of the United Jewish Appeal board of trustees.
Also Professor Irwin Cotler of McGill University; Mark Leibler, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia; Holocaust survivor and author Samuel Pisar; Rabbi Henry Sobel of Sao Paulo, Brazil; Michael Katz of South Africa; and Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
Speaking on the issue of human rights, Cotler said Israel was founded as a symbol of human rights, but is now being perceived as a violator of those rights.
“It behooves Israel to launch a human rights offensive,” Cotler said. But at the same time, he said, “any partner seeking standing in the peace process” must first reject the 1975 United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism.
‘NO ONE SCREAMED AT EACH OTHER’
The thrust of the conference was to show unity, and signs of it abounded. In a rare display of political unity, Shamir and Peres sat side by side on the podium during most of Monday’s morning session and afternoon news conference.
But there also were opportunities to discuss issues of contention.
At a steering committee session on Sunday, French writer Marek Halter, who had met privately with PLO chief Yasir Arafat, asked Foreign Minister Moshe Arens what was wrong with such a meeting.
“Understand from our perspective what recognizing the PLO as the sole legitimate spokesman for the Palestinians means,” said Arens, according to an eyewitness to the conversation.
“It doesn’t only mean the Palestinians on the West Bank. It means the guaranteed demise of (Jordan’s King) Hussein. It means the unleashing of 1.4 million Palestinians in the ‘diaspora.’”
“No one screamed at each other,” the eyewitness said. “That’s what made this a legitimate conference. People were able to come here, get access and have an unfiltered response from people actually making the decisions.”
All told, there were 1,580 delegates at the conference from 42 countries, including 730 Americans.