For years, opponents of the Israeli government have been frustrated because they were denied a hearing at American Jewish communal forums.
During the years of the Likud government, Labor Party politicians and groups such as Peace Now often sought the opportunity to take their case to events such as the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations, whose packed schedule features hundreds of speakers at dozens of sessions.
With the Labor Party now in power, Likud and other parties on the Israeli right are in the opposition, struggling to get their opinions heard.
Perhaps surprisingly, their longtime ideological opponents on the left remain allies in the call for open debate on Israeli politics in America.
And to prove it, at the recently concluded CJF General Assembly here, the newly empowered speakers on the left handed over the microphone on more than one occasion to opposing voices on the right.
Likud leaders, including the party’s chairman, Benjamin Netanyahu, had sought to address the gathering formally, but were turned down, as Labor leaders had been in years past.
But at more than one discussion on Israel-Diaspora relations — a central topic on the G.A. agenda — the refusal to permit the opposition to speak was attacked as an obstacle to those relations.
For Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin — who before assuming his post with the election of the present government in 1992 was a frequent visitor to the United States on behalf of Peace Now — the issue of debating Israeli policy was, and remains, central to a real relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.
“If there is something to me which indicates the barriers between us, it is this automatic support of what the Israeli government does,” Beilin said at a forum on the Middle East peace process.
HEALTHIER ORGANIZATION WITH DEBATES
“I have not been very impressed by the usual answer which is given to me (when I speak to Jews here): ‘Don’t bother us, it is up to you.’
“I think that we have to put an end to this policy, which was put in place by David Ben-Gurion, maybe,” he said, referring to Israel’s first prime minister, a strong critic of the Diaspora.
“I’m telling you, it is your business,” continued Beilin. “We won the elections just for this moment. And we encourage you to have a real dialogue with us.”
That invitation was taken up by two members of the audience, who questioned the policies of both Israel and the CJF.
“I feel very lonely up here,” said Gail Winston of Chicago, “because the G.A. did not invite anybody from the opposition to speak from the podium in terms of dealing with the issues.
“Therefore, there’s very few of us here who have the guts to put up and do what I want to do in my couple of seconds” in explaining the opposition position.
Winston took particular issue with the government’s plans for West Bank settlers, illustrating her point with a map of Israel.
Her remarks prompted boos from some members and several interruptions by the newly elected CJF president, Maynard Wishner, who is also from Chicago.
Later, Wishner reiterated official CJF policy regarding giving groups and individuals opposed to government policy a platform at the annual event.
“The G.A. has traditionally and historically invited members of the government of Israel. When a request was made (for opposition speakers), we offered to facilitate a room arrangement, the possibility of a meeting that would be publicized, to have people attend and discuss this issue.
“But the policy of the CJF over the years,” he said, “has been to have the spokesmen of the government of Israel be the formal presenters and there was no discriminatory application of the policy.”
Nonetheless, members of Americans for Peace Now, including its past national co-chairman, Gerald Bubis, insisted that CJF policy was wrong and, in this case, Winston was right.
“It is not right for a person like myself that stood outside of the umbrella and got rained on now to put Gail outside of the umbrella to get rained on,” he said.
“We would be a healthier organization if there were debates, if there were discussions, if there were openness.
“Then whatever we’re going to do, we’re going to do,” he said.
“But for God’s sake, we’re not children, and we all love the State (of Israel) and want the best for it. And we must hear all the voices.
“If not here, where, and if not now, when?” he said.
To judge by the applause, most of those at the G.A. session agreed.