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American Jewish Groups Face Challenge in Figuring out How to Support Peace

While some American Jewish groups are coming under fire for doing too little to support the peace process, those who do wish to promote it actively face a challenge: They are entering uncharted territory.

“Our role has been transformed from explaining why there hasn’t been an active peace process, to figuring out how we can be useful to Israel as it moves through an active peace process,” said Martin Raffel, director of the Israel Task Force of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council. “It raises some new questions that we address as we go along.”

The various mainstream Jewish organizations are dealing with the challenge in a variety of ways.

One approach has been to disseminate information about why Israel is taking the steps it is taking, and what those steps are.

At the center of this activity has been the Peace Process Task Force of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The task force has hosted Israel’s chief negotiators in the peace process to brief the leaders of Jewish organizations about the process. And it has circulated information and acted as a clearinghouse for the information produced by member groups.

The Anti-Defamation League has released a 120-page booklet on the peace process, including the status of the bilateral and multilateral talks, copies of the Israeli-Palestinian agreements, and a listing of Israeli-Arab joint ventures.

The American Jewish Committee issued a two-page statement on the peace process last month, applauding Israel for its “bold pursuit” of peace, while noting the risks Israel is taking.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has encouraged its member congregations to “dialogue” on the peace process, said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the group’s executive vice president.

‘DIALOGUE PROVIDES BETTER UNDERSTANDING’

“There are a lot of people who are wary about the peace process, and they want to feel they have an opportunity to express themselves. Dialogue doesn’t convince anybody, but it provides better understanding,” he said.

NJCRAC, an umbrella body for 117 local and 13 national groups, has organized a speakers bureau to provide local communities with people who can explain the peace process.

NJCRAC has also been playing a role in one of the highest-profile efforts supporting the peace process: Builders for Peace.

This organization of Arab and Jewish Americans was formed by Vice President A1 Gore last September, immediately following the signing of the declaration of principles between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Its goal is to promote economic development in the autonomous Palestinian areas, and it has begun lining up potential investors and helping identify and resolve obstacles to investment.

Builders for Peace will be sponsoring a visit of Palestinian business executives to America in the fall, and NJCRAC will help the visitors arrange meetings with local American Jewish communities.

NJCRAC is also looking ahead to September, and working to organize celebrations and commemorations for the first anniversary of the signing of the declaration of principles.

The Union of American Hebrew Congregations will be urging the social action chairs of its Reform synagogues to take part or organize such celebrations.

Last week, Israeli Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich and the leadership of the Conference of Presidents met to begin planning such anniversary commemorations as well.

In the realm of symbolism, the American Zionist Movement broke ground in April by meeting at the United Nations with a representative of the PLO and other Arab diplomats.

Even the United Jewish Appeal has joined in the act. It issued a full-page advertisement in The New York Times at the time of the signing last fall, and has spoken of a “peace component” to some of its programs supporting Israel-Arab coexistence.

Douglas Kahn, executive director of San Francisco’s Jewish Community Relations Council, believes the accord between Israel and the PLO is an opportunity that the Jewish community can profit from.

His group, he said, is undertaking “greater efforts to reach out to members of the Jewish community who had been alienated by previous Israeli government policies toward the Palestinians, and increased efforts to normalize relations with members of the local Palestinian American community.”

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