JERUSALEM (Mar. 26)
It would be easy to take a cynical view of last week’s Prime Minister’s Conference on Jewish Solidarity With Israel.
And indeed, several Israeli journalists writing about the three-day event did take a negative slant, calling it a failure and a farce that produced little in the way of concrete answers to the myriad problems facing Israel.
But according to many of the primary participants, the conference accomplished exactly what it set out to do.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, is credited with first proposing the conference to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
“When Rabbi Hier came up with the idea, he thought it was important to create a media event, to show that we were taking some initiative,” said Efraim Zuroff, Israeli representative of the center.
“Instead of responding all the time to ‘Arafat did this, and he met with this one and he met with that one — Algiers, Stockholm, Geneva’ — the time has come to show that we’re not lying down and doing nothing. That there is a Jewish people, and the Jewish people support Israel, and we’re here to talk about it, and the people who came here are here to express that support.
“It doesn’t mean that everybody necessarily agrees with the present policies,” he said.
‘HESITATIONS ABOUT COMING’
Some leaders of Diaspora Jewry who disagree with government policy stayed away from the conference, afraid it would not be worth their time.
They feared there would be no discussion of policy, no debate over issues and no addressing the problems facing the government of Israel, the people of Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora.
“Many of us had hesitations about coming here, including our own leadership,” said Ernest Michel, executive director of the UJA-Federation of New York.
“But it was our feeling that if the prime minister of Israel, prior to going to see the president of the United States, goes and asks the American Jewish community to come here, we owe it to him to be here, no matter what our points of view are.”
There was no formal debate over ending the intifada, or negotiating with the Palestine Liberation Organization, or defining who is a Jew.
But that was just fine, as far as most participants were concerned. It did not prevent delegates from expressing divergent viewpoints and challenging the speakers on different matters.
Charlotte Jacobson, representing both Hadassah and the Jewish National Fund, asked Vice Premier Peres after his speech whether the unity government “would be prepared to make a list of demands that the PLO would have to follow in order for Israel to include them in a delegation.”
Similarly, Dr. Lionel Kopelowitz, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jewry, asked Peres “what criteria the PLO would have to fulfill, and what change of policy would have to take place, which would permit Israel to talk to the PLO, because ultimately talks are held with your enemies and not with your friends.”
Peres responded, “If the PLO is sincerely interested in negotiating, why do they stop the people they claim they represent, the people they claim support them, from coming to negotiate?”
Such exchanges between speaker and delegate were not unusual, despite the format of the conference being designed to minimize dissent.
‘SHARP AND OPEN DEBATE’
“I was actually pleasantly surprised by the relative openness of the conference, during the steering committee meetings and in some of the workshops,” said Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and a noted critic of Shamir’s policies.
“There was sharp and open debate, and it was very well handled,” he said.
As for those disappointed that the careful orchestration of the conference’s agenda prevented a detailed discussion of government policy, they just came to the wrong place, said one conference participant.
“Anyone who expected an unfolding here of a master plan and a master design, just doesn’t know how the process works,” said Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation and religious leader of the Park East Synagogue in New York.
Israeli leaders are “not going to spell out a plan in front of a steering committee of 200. It’s just not done,” he said.
So what was the point of this conference? Perhaps to give liberals and conservatives, hawks and doves, a place to come together and to share ideas.
“You know, it’s not so terrible for Marvin Hier and Israel Singer and Burt Levinson and others to sit down and shmooze and talk issues through,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center.
Singer is secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress and Burton Levinson is national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.
Certainly, it was also a media event, designed to show Jew and gentile alike that although it has been a tough year, Jews are still standing together.
DISSENT VS. DISLOYALTY
“I think it means that those who have been betting on a wedge being driven between the Jewish people and the State of Israel are going to be severely disappointed,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
In the final analysis, the conference demonstrated that Jews can stand in solidarity and yet not be monolithic, that Jews can support Israel and still have differing points of view. That disagreement is not disaffection, and dissent is not disloyalty.
“I came here,” said Schindler, “not to endorse any particular policy, not to write any blank check, but to demonstrate my ‘at-oneness’ with this land, and its people, and my fellow Jews.
“One of the reasons I came here was precisely because I am a critic, to demonstrate that my criticism involves certain policies, but that my love for Israel transcends policy, and party, and personality, and embraces an entire people. And that was the purpose of this conference.”