Behind the Headlines: for First Time, U.S. Jewish Groups Are on Defensive with Rabin Policies

For the first time since Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor government took power last summer, American Jewish groups have found themselves defending an Israeli action that has been criticized around the world.

Israel’s expulsion of 415 Moslem fundamentalists to Lebanon may have caused discomfort for some Jewish groups, but there has been little disagreement over the issue among them.

A statement on the deportations drafted Dec. 17 by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations won approval from organizational leaders in a conference call that lasted less than 10 minutes.

That is a change from the days of Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud government, when there were often heated arguments over how far to defend Israeli actions American Jewish groups might find distateful.

The Conference of Presidents statement declared: “We believe that all Americans who support the cause of peace in the Middle East and reconciliation between Arab and Jew will understand the reasons for Israel’s action.”

While that falls short of an outright endorsement of the Israeli move, it is far more supportive of Israel’s position than might have been the case had Shamir’s government carried out the same deportations, according to several organizational leaders.

“We would have demonstrated some consensus, but not as strong,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “There was a greater level of organized Jewish community support than you’ve had in recent years.”

Said an official of another organization, speaking on condition of anonymity: “If Shamir had done this, there would have been an almost hysterical reaction within certain segments of the community.”

Robert Lifton, president of the American Jewish Congress, one of the organizations most critical of Shamir’s policies, said “it’s not a question of which government is in power; it’s a question of which objectives.”

Given that Rabin’s objective is to advance the peace process forward rapidly, the deportations have to be understood as assuring the Israeli public that he will take whatever steps are necessary to assure their security, said Lifton.

EXPLAINING RATHER THAN CONDONING

“If the government was not moving on the peace process, and this move was seen as being the beginning of mass expulsions,” leading to transfer of Arabs outside the territories, there would be “no question about the reaction of the Jewish community,” Lifton said.

Still, as an organization “that has consistently stood for human rights,” the AJCongress has not applauded the deportations as such, neither condemning nor condoning them.

Lifton feels on much firmer grounds explaining the reasons behind Israel’s decision, which was made in the aftermath of a string of murders by the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement.

“What Israelis understand is that Hamas is extending Iran’s hegemony over the entire region,” he said. “It’s not just a narrow, localized terrorist group, but part of an overall plan to subvert the countries in the area, financed, supported and trained by Iran, with a view to establishing fundamentalist control over the region.”

This explanation of Israel’s aims — while not fully justifying the means as being wise or effective — was reiterated by most Jewish groups and was pithily summarized by the headline of a subsequent Conference of Presidents statement:

“Shed no tears for these murderers — sympathize instead with the victims, Jew and Arab alike, of Hamas violence.”

Foxman of the ADL explained his group’s reluctance to back the Israeli move outright.

“Deportations is a colored word. It brings back a lot of memories. It’s a very difficult concept for the Jewish people,” said Foxman, who is a Holocaust survivor.

“When it happens, there’s understanding. And I guess the word that’s missing is support, and there is support, but nobody’s jumping up and down saying, ‘I’m glad Rabin did it.’ “

Jewish groups “support it as a last resort, in sorrow and in pain,” he said.

One who did announce support put it in a similar context.

“I felt of the three choices Israel had, this was the least problematic,” explained Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of Reform Judaism’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Given the choices of doing nothing, or blowing up houses and imposing long jail terms, “this was the middle ground,” he said.

U.N. RESOLUTION CRITICIZED

In this, Schindler followed the lead of Cabinet members from Meretz, Labor’s dovish coalition partner, which is allied with the Reform movement in the World Zionist Organization.

“I have the utmost confidence in (their) integrity,” he said.

The Reform leader admitted to some second thoughts, in light of the furor that erupted after Lebanon refused to accept the deportees.

An official of one Jewish organization that endorsed the consensus position privately called the Israeli move “the damn stupidest thing.”

“The Rabin government is what so many of us were hoping for, and now he’s done something that would be expected by a Shamir government,” the official said, adding: “But the alternative of condemning him and weakening him is worse.”

This discomfort with the action may well explain the near gusto with which several organizations, including ADL, the American Jewish Committee and the Rabbinical Council of America, criticized U.S. support for a U.N. Security Council resolution strongly condemning Israel for the deportations.

“What the Security Council failed to acknowledge, with at least tacit support of the United States, was the extraordinary nature of the threat to Israeli society and to the Middle East peace process posed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the extraordinary restraint shown by Israel in confronting that threat,” AJCommittee leaders wrote in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.

BACKING FOR FIGHT AGAINST HAMAS

One organization that might have been expected to condemn the expulsions was American Friends of Peace Now. In Israel, Peace Now sponsored a rally against the deportations.

But the American body, while issuing a statement from the Israeli parent organization, did not itself take a position.

“Peace Now in Israel,” said Mark Rosenblum, political director of the American Friends group, “has totally supported the necessity of fighting Hamas and terrorism. The question is whether Rabin’s chosen way of fighting the war was effective.

“We’re very much of the view that there isn’t much evidence that collective punishment, in general, and deportations is an effective instrument in crushing terrorism,” he said.

The Israeli Peace Now position was echoed by the New Jewish Agenda and by Michael Lerner, editor of the left-wing magazine Tikkun.

Lerner held no brief for Hamas. “I hate these people, I don’t respect them one inch,” he said.

But he differentiated his stand from the Conference of Presidents line.

“They’re saying, ‘We understand the reason for the Israeli action.’ I’m saying the action was stupid because it strengthened Hamas’ standing in its struggle” with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

“What’s going on is a struggle between the PLO, who want a peaceful resolution, who are struggling for negotiations for a demilitarized Palestinian state, against the other guys, who say, ‘Forget it, there is nothing we can do in relationship with Israel except to die gloriously in an armed struggle,’ ” said Lerner.

On the other end of the spectrum, groups that offered outright support of the Israeli move included the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and Americans for a Safe Israel.

B’nai Brith issued a statement expressing its “guarded support” for the expulsions. Less than three hours later, the organization sent out the statement again, but this time the word “guarded” was erased.

But Dan Mariaschin, the organization’s director of international affairs, said, “I wouldn’t read too much into that.”

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