U.S. Jewish Leaders Mainly Positive About Bishops’ Statement on Mideast

American Jewish leaders have generally welcomed a draft policy statement on the Middle East released Wednesday by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But several of them have expressed concern over the statement’s call for the establishment of a “Palestinian homeland with its sovereign status recognized by Israel.”

At the same time, they have applauded language in the statement reflecting concern for the Jewish state’s security, its affirmation of U.S. government support for Israel and its demand that “the Arab states enter into full diplomatic relations with Israel.”

“It is a fair and balanced statement,” said Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress.

The voluminous 40-page draft is titled “Toward Peace in the Middle East: Problems and Principles.” It will be voted on by bishops from across the country when they convene in Baltimore on Nov.6.

The document will be the first statement on the Middle East conflict issued by the American Catholic hierarchy since a two-page document on the subject was drawn up in 1978.

Rabbi A. James Rudin and Judith Banki, respectively the director and associate director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, called the statement “an honorable and compassionate attempt to represent the various parties’ concerns for justice, recognition, and security.”

Siegman, Rudin and Banki were among seven Jewish leaders who reviewed the draft Tuesday in a five-hour meeting with the Catholic bishops who crafted the statement: Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, Archbishop Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and Archbishop William Keeler of Baltimore.

During the session, the draft was gone over line by line, and Jewish leaders offered their criticism, which was largely directed at the draft’s affirmation of Palestinian rights for a “homeland” with “territorial and political sovereignty.”

STATE DEPARTMENT CRITICAL

In Washington, the State Department on Thursday criticized that portion of the statement as “not helpful.” Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said, “We don’t favor any unilateral steps or declarations.”

Several Jewish organizations also criticized the call for a homeland in statements they released Thursday.

The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith said the policy statement contains “many positive and constructive elements.” But it called the recommendation on territorial sovereignty “fundamentally flawed” and said it could “obscure the positive.”

Such a recommendation “runs counter to American policy and can only retard the chances for peace,” said Kenneth Jacobson, director of ADL’s international affairs division, who participated in the meeting with the three bishops.

“Whether intended or not, the statement appears to be calling for a sovereign Palestinian state as the end result of negotiations,” concluded a statement released by the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.

Twenty-five representatives of NJCRAC agencies held a consultation on the Catholic draft document on Wednesday, to determine how local bishops who will be voting on the statement should be approached by the Jewish community.

NJCRAC is the umbrella group for national Jewish organizations and community relations councils around the country.

INTIFADA CALLED ‘CRY FOR JUSTICE’

To many observers, the language of the Catholic statement seems painstaking in its efforts to be even-handed.

It states that the Palestinians should be “willing to discuss secure boundaries and stable political relations with Israel” and that Israel must be willing to “discuss territory and sovereignty with Palestinians.”

However, particularly when discussing the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, its sympathies clearly do not lie with the Israeli government.

“The central theme which needs to be lifted up and repeated is that the intifada is a cry for justice; it is a cry for personal and political identity,” the document reads.

Rudin and Banki of AJCommittee called that description “unbalanced,” saying that it fails to take into account the Israeli view of the intifada as a continuation of the violent attacks launched by Arabs against the Jewish state since its creation.

Those who took part in the Tuesday conference with the Catholic officials indicated that the bishops appeared to welcome their input.

“They were most receptive to our critiques and criticism,” said Rabbi Henry Michelman, executive vice president of the Synagogue Council of America, which represents the congregational and rabbinic bodies of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism.

Michelman said that his member organizations would contact congregational rabbis across the country to offer guidance in discussing the statement with bishops in their communities.

Uriel Savir, the Israeli consul general in New York, said that while the Israeli government was still studying the draft, it appears initially that “the document is going into details as to the final outcome of negotiations in an unbalanced way.” A Middle East peace settlement “should be left to the negotiating parties,” he said.

ISRAELI MEETS WITH O’CONNOR

Savir met with O’Connor two weeks ago and told him that “any statement that would take sides would be counterproductive to the peace process.”

In response, according to Savir, the New York archbishop said that “after going through some of the drafts, that a provocative and one-sided statement would not be constructive both for the peace process and for Catholic-Jewish relations.”

Savir said that his Israeli diplomatic counterparts in Los Angeles and Washington had similar conversations with Mahony and Keeler.

Mahony, who chaired the committee that put together the draft, issued a statement upon its release.

Perhaps anticipating criticism from the Jewish community, he said the three bishops “believe constructive dialogue does not require silence or avoidance of differences, but an understanding that people of good will can sometimes disagree without undermining fundamental relationships of respect.”

(JTA Washington correspondent Howard Rosenberg contributed to this report.)

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