The dictum that the Jewish community pulls together when Jews are attacked from the outside was played out in almost every event at the annual plenum of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council here Feb. 17 to 20.
A feeling of passionate support for Israel at this critical time, together with the new political realities in the Middle East, rallied delegates to unity on many issues about which there had been little agreement in the past.
For instance, a statement on the postwar period, adopted by the delegates Tuesday after little debate, says it is clear that “the Palestine Liberation Organization cannot play a constructive role, directly or indirectly, in advancing the prospects for peace” in the Middle East.
“A year or two ago, we couldn’t have had this in the statement,” said Martin Raffel, director of NJCRAC’s Israel Task Force. “The general climate has pointed in certain directions now that create an environment of unity.”
Historically, the annual NJCRAC plenum has been considered one of the few forums in American Jewish organizational life where an open airing of divergent opinions is possible.
But this year, some delegates felt that the strongly pro-Israel atmosphere of the plenum restricted the freedom of participants to speak openly if their views were not in concert with the majority position.
NJCRAC’s executive vice chair, Lawrence Rubin, warned in his opening address that “it would be unfortunate if it were perceived that, out of some misguided notion of like-mindedness, the field appeared to exclude from its deliberative process energetic and independent-minded individuals and organizations.”
SOME ‘AFRAID TO EVEN TALK’
According to Albert Vorspan, senior vice president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and its director of social action, some individuals with dissenting views were “afraid to even talk” at the sessions where debate over policy issues took place.
“We can’t allow rallying around the flag to become our only agenda,” he said.
Some participants, however, felt that critical points of view on some issues, particularly those relating to Israeli policy, should not be aired on the plenum floor, but discussed privately with Israeli leaders.
It has been “fashionable and easy to criticize Israel for the last couple of years” said William Rapfogel, executive director of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
“The Jewish community right now cannot afford to make a mistake,” he said. “There are some in the (Bush) administration who will seize on any split in the Jewish community.”
Israeli diplomats were among those who would like to see less criticism of Israeli policy aired at the NJCRAC plenum. Several diplomats were on the floor of every NJCRAC session where debate about Israeli policy took place, talking with delegates about the issues in question.
Mordechai Yedid, deputy consul general at the Israeli Consulate in New York, was seen grabbing the arm of Maynard Wishner, NJCRAC treasurer and co-chair of its Israel Task Force, as he walked by in the corridor.
He urged Wishner not to bring up the sensitive subject of “transfer” at the next plenum session. “Transfer” refers to the proposal of the Moledet party, which has just joined the Israeli government, to expel Arabs from the administered territories as part of a peace settlement.
ISSUE OF ‘TRANSFER’ AVOIDED
Some delegates wondered if the Israelis were working too hard to influence the shape of the debate that was about to take place.
“I see nothing wrong with the Israelis expressing their views,” said Thomas Smerling, executive director of Project Nishma, a dovish organization that tries to educate people about Israeli security and the peace process.
“But if they’re going to be intimately involved with the debate with American Jewish organizations,” he added, “it would be hypocritical for them to say that we shouldn’t speak out.”
As it turned out, the subject of “transfer,” which many Jews find abhorrent, was raised by a delegate during the policy debate. The issue was referred to the Israel Task Force for consideration without being discussed by delegates.
The outrage felt by many delegates over the inclusion of Moledet in the Israeli government, and the fact that delegates were not able to take a public position on the notion of “transfer” during the plenum, became a bonus for Project Nishma’s Smerling, who was collecting signatures for a letter on the subject to Knesset member Binyamin Begin.
The letter, which praised Begin’s “principled stand” opposing Moledet’s inclusion in the government, served as a way for many delegates to express themselves on the issue. It was signed by more than 100 Jewish leaders, including all eight past chairs of NJCRAC attending the plenum.
For the past several years, Israel has been the focus of debate at the plenum, and this year, that was the case more than ever.
While delegates said that it was natural for Israel to be the focus during the current crisis, some community leaders felt that domestic issues were shunted to the back burner and did not receive the attention they deserve.
ONLY ONE ISSUE IMPORTANT TO JEWS
Only seven of 30 items on the agenda for discussions during Joint Program Planning sessions were related to the Middle East.
But domestic issues, including intergroup tensions, energy policy and anti-Semitism, were relegated to the very last hour of discussion.
Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) criticized this preoccupation with Israel in a speech to the delegates Sunday night.
“Sadly, there is only one issue that the members of Congress think is important to Jews — Israel,” he said, adding that “on issues of civil rights and civil liberties, you are not doing your job.”
While several delegates called Metzenbaum’s remarks “an overstatement,” one argued that “so many non-Jews work in domestic affairs,” but “only the Jews are for Israel.”
NJCRAC Chair Arden Shenker devoted his entire address Monday to issues of foreign policy. “The sore needs on our domestic agenda,” he said, are “for another day, if not for another plenum.”