Behind the Headlines: U.S. Jewish Leaders Hear Range of Views on Israel’s Challenges

For three days last week, a group of American Jewish leaders were bombarded with conflicting views on a host of challenges facing the State of Israel.

Seventy-five members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations engaged in intensive dialogue with Israelis of nearly every political stripe on such issues as the Middle East peace process and the economic consequences of the flood of Soviet immigrants.

And then they had an encounter of an entirely different kind.

It took place around midnight last Wednesday at Ben-Gurion Airport, where a planeload of Soviet immigrants had just arrived from Romania.

They were greeted in English, Yiddish and Hebrew by the organizational leaders. Those who understood none of those languages were simply showered with candy, flowers and Israeli flags.

“I am overwhelmed by the possibilities of the Soviet aliyah,” Milton Shapiro of the Zionist Organization of America exclaimed after the visit to the airport.

But while the visit left many in the delegation inspired and optimistic about Israel’s future, others remained troubled by the enormity of such concerns as the status of the peace process.

The overwhelming desire to see Soviet aliyah proceed smoothly seemed to intensify the American Jewish leaders’ hope that Israel’s political and diplomatic problems could be overcome.

MET WITH PALESTINIAN LEADERS

Most seemed anxious for the peace process to move forward, as conference Chairman Seymour Reich urged Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir during a private meeting Feb. 22.

Members of the conference had ample opportunity during the three-day Israel seminar to discuss their concerns with government leaders and officials of the Jewish Agency for Israel. But they also got to hear a number of unofficial points of view.

“We have tried to bring as many varying points of view before the delegates,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, conference executive director.

“These are such complex issues — only by being exposed to as broad a range of views as possible, can we do justice to them,” he said.

As they had in previous years, the participants met with a panel of Palestinian leaders, including Professor Sari Nusseibeh of Bir Zeit University, the mayor of Jericho, and the deputy mayors of Bethlehem and Ramallah.

But this year for the first time, members of the conference met with left-wing Israeli activists affiliated with the Peace Now movement. The activists spoke candidly about the group’s advocacy of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and accommodation with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

One of the activists, Professor Sidra Ezrachi, welcomed the exchange, though she felt the questions coming from some of the American Jewish leaders were “hostile” and “antagonistic.”

The fact that the session had been scheduled by the Conference of Presidents, she said, reflected “an opening up of the leaders of the American Jewish community” to varying Israeli points of view.

Ezrachi’s fellow activist, Professor Amiram Goldbloom, disagreed. The conference “tries still to present a point of view which is dying,” he said. “Both they and we are losing the good will of the United States as a result.”

Arguing heatedly with Goldbloom was Rabbi Reubin Gruenbaum of the National Council of Young Israel, who said he “totally disagreed” with what the activists had to say. Yet he said he “could understand and appreciate their position as they expressed it, because they live here.”

A VISIT TO THE WEST BANK

But after a visit to Gush Etzion, a cluster of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Gruenbaum said he had changed his mind.

During the visit, the delegates viewed an emotional film on the struggle to defend the settlements on the eve of Israel’s independence. The film depicted the bloody attack and slaughter of the Jewish settlers by invading Arab fighters.

“I can’t fathom compromising with those who committed such acts,” Gruenbaum said.

The conference members got a real window on the intifada during a bus ride through Bethlehem past the Dehaishe refugee camp to hear a briefing by Gen. Yitzhak Mordechai, the Israeli army commander in charge of the West Bank.

The streets of the Palestinian villages were barren, and all doors and windows shut tight as part of a general strike against Israel’s announcement that day that West Bank universities would remain closed for three more months.

Along with the peace process, the issue that continued to crop up during the seminar was the settlement of Soviet Jews in the territories.

Every Israeli leader who addressed the American delegation from Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin of the Labor Party to Yitzhak Shamir and Justice Minster Dan Meridor of Likud — stressed the principle of “free choice.”

The Soviets would not be deliberately settled in the West Bank, nor would they be banned from living there.

There was disagreement among the American Jewish leaders, however, over a widely publicized recommendation made last month at the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council plenary in Phoenix on the inadvisability of building housing for immigrants in the West Bank.

A RIGHT TO CRITICIZE ISRAEL?

American Jewish Congress President Robert Lifton hailed “a new openness” in the organized American Jewish community. “There are no more ‘treif’ topics or opinions,” he said.

But Reich insisted that the wide play given the NJCRAC decision in the Israeli press “was an example of the negative implications of American Jews giving Israel advice on security matters.”

The issue was debated during a “town meeting” between the American Jewish leaders and 30 Israelis, organized by the Israel Forum, a group promoting Israel-Diaspora relations.

Many of the Israelis said they thought American Jews should publicly criticize Israel when they disagreed with its policies.

“We want your advice,” said Israel Forum member Shlomo Cohen. “You’ve been restraining yourselves on speaking out.”

But Rabbi Joseph Glaser, executive vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, said he was not “sure I have a right to speak out on the issues that affect the lives of the people who live here.”

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