American Jewish Groups Take Issue with Venture in Christian Quarter
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American Jewish Groups Take Issue with Venture in Christian Quarter

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Just a few weeks ago, American Jewish organizations took issue with the Bush administration for suggesting that Jews did not have the right to live in certain parts of Jerusalem.

This week, many of those same organizations found themselves criticizing the Israeli government for its role in establishing a Jewish presence in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.

Even groups that may otherwise have supported the right of 150 Orthodox Jews to move into a Greek Orthodox Church building called St. John’s Hospice expressed frustration that the move took place during the Christian holy days preceding Easter.

They were also upset at the Israeli government’s veiled role in the effort, which became public when the Construction and Housing Ministry confirmed that it had provided $1.8 million in funds to obtain a lease on the building.

“We stand on the position of the right of Jews to live in any part of Jerusalem,” explained Kenneth Jacobsen, international affairs director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.

“That’s not the issue. The issue has to do with the manner in which the settlement came about,” he said.

ADL was one of a number of Jewish organizations that issued statements expressing deep reservations about the move to take over the building in the Christian Quarter.

Others included the American Jewish Congress, B’nai B’rith International and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. The American Jewish Committee sent a message to Israeli leaders, but chose not to make it public.


One of the strongest reactions came from Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the UAHC, who said, “The Israeli government’s role in the Jewish settlement of St. John’s Hospice was unconscionable and self-destructive. The government must move immediately to undo the damage to Israel’s reputation.”

The AJCongress statement said the group was “appalled by reports that members of a narrow Israeli caretaker government, operating during a political interim without a democratic mandate, have participated in a clandestine effort to settle Jews in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem.”

Seymour Reich, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir on Wednesday, following a meeting of the umbrella organization to express the Jewish community’s concern on the matter.

Though the conference did not release a public statement of its own, “there was a consensus in terms of concern over the timing of the event, the disclosure of the utilization of the monies and the hurt caused to some Christians, who may have misunderstood the whole event,” said Reich.

Reich said he reported to Shamir the Ameri- can Jewish concern over “the harm” the Christian Quarter settlement “could do to Israel in terms of the Congress and the Christian community in the United States.”

Reich noted that the House of Representatives on Tuesday had passed a resolution declaring Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital. But he warned the prime minister he should not interpret that vote as “an endorsement of the situation” in the Christian Quarter.

Shamir responded on a lighthearted note, according to Reich. “He came back at me and said, ‘Seymour, you can’t take away all moments of accomplishments from us. We need some positive reports.'”


Some of the more right-wing groups in the Conference of Presidents criticized their fellow members for issuing public statements.

They also expressed concern over a report Wednesday in The New York Times that the preeminent pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, had sent a message to Israel warning that the move in the Christian Quarter would damage the Jewish state’s relations with the United States.

Officials at AIPAC would not comment publicly Wednesday on the Times report. But knowledgeable sources said the warning was conveyed by telephone and that officials had no intention of it becoming public.

“AIPAC owes the American Jewish community an explanation for what it did,” said an angry Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, president of Poale Agudath Israel of America.

Schonfeld, while admitting that “maybe the timing may not have been right on the eve of Easter,” said he was extremely concerned that “we are ignoring the basic fact that we have the right to live anywhere in Israel as Jews.”

“The impression that is being given is that Jews have no right to move in next to a church. If there was such opposition to a similar situation in this country, liberal organizations like the American Jewish Congress would be the first to scream,” he said.

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