Behind the Headlines: Peace Now Battling for a Place in American Jewish Mainstream

When President Clinton’s transition team sought an audience with key American Jewish leaders late last year, it called on two standard-bearers of organized American Jewry: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

But the transition team also invited to this high-level gathering a group for whom being in the loop is a rather new experience: Americans for Peace Now.

Earlier this month, APN was seated once again alongside AIPAC, this time before the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations. Both groups were advocating for the continuation of current levels of U.S. aid to Israel.

With several of its board members and supporters closely tied to or actually part of the Clinton administration, APN, it appears, has entered the mainstream of American political life.

But the question remains: Is the group, which began just over a decade ago as a support group for Israel’s Peace Now movement, ready to enter the mainstream of American Jewish life?

For the leaders of the 10,000-member fund-raising and advocacy group, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

"It has become plausible to imagine us playing a constructive role inside the organized Jewish community," said Mark Rosenblum, a founder of the American organization and currently its vice president and political director.

As evidence of its desire to move from the margins, APN has applied for membership in the Conference of Presidents, an umbrella group representing some 50 U.S. Jewish organizations.

The conference is scheduled to vote on the group’s application later this month. Its membership committee has recommended APN’s acceptance, though not unanimously.

The umbrella group is often seen by U.S. and foreign governments as a central address for American Jewish opinion.

PRESIDENT’S RECORD QUESTIONED

Letters and calls from both supporters and critics of APN have been streaming into the New York headquarters of the conference. No prior application has prompted debate "quite to the degree" that APN’s has, said Malcolm Hoenlein, the umbrella group’s executive vice chairman.

Philadelphia activists Morton Klein and Michael Goldblatt, both affiliated with the right-wing Zionist Organization of America, have been in the forefront of a national campaign to prevent Peace Now’s inclusion in the umbrella group.

Charging that APN lies outside the bounds of mainstream Jewish opinion, opponents focus on the group’s dovish policies and on its newly elected president, Gail Pressberg, in particular.

Pressberg’s past, which includes nine years as director of Middle East Programs at the American Friends Service Committee, followed by a two-year stint at the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace, is a source of concern to other more mainstream members of the American Jewish community as well.

While at the Philadelphia-based AFSC until 1987, Pressberg was actively engaged in advocating a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, promoting dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, and urging the U.S. government to open a dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization long before the PLO’s 1988 renunciation of terrorism and recognition of Israel.

As a promoter of policies then seen to be hostile to Israel, Pressberg was perceived by some in the Jewish establishment as "a real problem," according to one Jewish communal leader who had contacts with her at the time.

In an extensive telephone interview from her Washington office, Pressberg lamented the charges against her and defended her record.

"I’ve been a Zionist all my life, but I was not working for a Zionist organization before," she said of her years at AFSC and the Foundation for Middle East Peace. "I am now," she stressed.

Pressberg’s supporters think she is getting a bum rap.

Rosenblum, her APN colleague, credits Pressberg with working on Israeli-Palestinian dialogue "long before it was fashionable."

"The ones sitting at the negotiating table today are the ones she got together," he said. "She will be credited as one who helped get us to this unprecedented opportunity" where Israelis and Palestinians are talking peace.

MANY GROUPS STILL UNDECIDED

Asked whether her views have changed since her days at organizations perceived as less-than-friendly to Israel, Pressberg responded:

"Am I a completely different person? No, I’m not a completely difference person. But have my views evolved? Yes, my views have evolved, like almost everyone else I know in the American Jewish community.

"I ask people to look at my affiliation with Shalom Achshav and judge my record over the past three years," she said, using the Hebrew name for Peace Now, APN’s sister group in Israel.

How much a role Pressberg’s record will play in the decision about whether to admit APN to the Conference of Presidents remains to be seen.

According to an official of a national Jewish organization, who requested anonymity, "There is a clear distinction between the way people are responding to Peace Now and the way they are responding to Pressberg.

"Except for those on the fringe, most people in the Jewish community see the right of Peace Now to step up to the table and participate in discussions," the official said.

But with many organizations still undecided about APN’s application to the conference, it is not clear how the vote will turn out.

The Zionist Organization of America and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America are among those who have registered their opposition.

On the other side, American Jewish Congress and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations are among those on record supporting APN’s bid.

"It’s hard to imagine that their application would ultimately be denied, since they meet all the criteria for membership," said the head of one influential group, who asked not to be named.

Lawrence Rubin, executive vice chairman of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, said his group is undecided, but he is personally "inclined to support the application." He pointed out that APN "has a relationship and an entree both in Jerusalem and Washington that would be very useful" to the Jewish community.

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