The Debate Rages On: Should U.S. Jews Publicly Oppose Israeli Peace Policy?

Should American Jews who disagree with the peace policies of the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin break ranks and publicly voice their protests?

The latest version of the ongoing debate over the proper role of American Jews was discussed here at a recent forum organized by B’nai B’rith World Center.

The panel’s conclusion: While it is virtually impossible to muzzle American Jewish opposition to official Israeli policies, such opposition should have limits.

Conventional wisdom has held that American Jews should not interfere with matters of Israeli security because these dissenters do not “shed their blood in defense of Israel,” said David Bar-Illan, the conservative editor of the Jerusalem Post who was a panelist at the forum.

But since nearly everything can be tied to security when it comes to Israel, it is unrealistic to ask American Jews to refrain from joining the fray of political discourse, he said.

“Dissent is part of our lives,” he said, “both in Israel and America.”

Shlomo Avineri, a professor at Hebrew University and a former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, disagreed. He said that public protest against Israeli policy should be practiced only by those who enjoy Israeli citizenship.

“It’s a basic issue off responsibility,” he said.

While there might be debate inside the Israeli political system, he said, ultimately there is just one democratically elected government of Israel, and public dissent outside the country undermines that government.

Dissident American lobbying efforts should use restraint and “understand what the consequences” will be, said Avineri.

Avineri, a member of the Labor Party, said that when the Likud was in power, he similarly urged his dovish American friends not to lobby against the Israeli government.

Zalman Shoval, a former ambassador to the United States who is now responsible for handling foreign relations for the opposition Likud Party, said Avineri’s view threatens the underpinnings of the Israel-Diaspora relationship.

“Isn’t it a contradiction to say, `You are partners with Israel’ and then come and say `you are silent partners?’” he asked.

He called it the duty and right of concerned Jews to air their views about Israel.

Shoval defended the recent criticism by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, of a U.S. State Department report that found that the Palestine Liberation Organization is fulfilling the basic requirements of its self-rule accord with Israel.

AIPAC’s criticism reportedly angered some Israeli officials, who were concerned that an attack on the report would adversely affect U.S. aid to the Palestinians. The Israeli government supports aid to the Palestinians as a necessary way to help shore up the peace process.

AIPAC is an American organization that reflects the Israeli government policy of the day, said Shoval. “But it isn’t a rubber stamp and it shouldn’t be.”

The organization “would have lost its credibility” if it had not expressed its reservations about the State Department report, he said.

At the same time, Shoval said that while Jews in the Diaspora “have every right to ask questions,” they “should at least make the effort not to attack” the policies of the State of Israel publicly and systematically.

Bar-Illan said that it may be legitimate, for instance, for Diaspora Jews to have a say on the fate of Jerusalem, since they are constantly told the city is not only the capital of Israel, but of the Jewish people.

Similarly, Diaspora parents of Jewish settlers in the territories may feel they have a right to call on Israel not to withdraw from these lands, he said.

But on the other hand, lobbying against aid to Israel because of opposition to Israeli policies should be out of bounds, Bar-Illan said.

Galia Golan, a Hebrew University professor and coordinator of relations between Peace Now and the Diaspora, agreed, calling the issue of aid a “red line” that should not be crossed.

In fact, Golan found herself in the unusual position of sharing most of the views put forth by the more conservative Bar-Illan and Shoval.

Throughout the years of the Likud government, said Golan, “we heard that Israel was weak and vulnerable” and Jews shouldn’t “wash our dirty linen in public.”

But, Diaspora Jews, both then and today, “have the right to speak out, even if they are not in harmony with the administration in power,” she said. “People can’t be muzzled.”

Golan noted that passions are running especially high now because of the historic movement toward peace.

“We are at a crossroads,” she said, calling the current debate over the peace process a question of “life and death.”

Israelis “have a right to ask Jews to support us in the effort to find peace,” she said. “It is the right and privilege of every Jew to take part.”

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