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Orthodox Groups, Others Urge Civility in Peace Process Debate

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After two years of increasing rancor in the debate over Israel’s peace process policy, a growing chorus of American Jewish organizations are appealing for an urgent return to civil discourse.

Six leading Orthodox Jewish organizations declared last week that “there can be no excuse or justification for the extremist verbal attacks directed against the elected leadership of the State of Israel.”

The statement was issued jointly by Amit Women, Emunah of America, Mizrachi – – Religious Zionists of America, the Rabbinical Council of America, Poale Agudath Israel and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

The Orthodox groups came together apparently in response to Orthodox Rabbi Abraham Hecht, who last month declared it acceptable under Jewish law to assassinate Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

At the same time, the New Israel Fund recently brought together several other groups to discuss how the community should respond to Hecht’s statement and similar remarks.

“Silence in the face of this accelerating breakdown in civil discourse is unacceptable,” NIF warned in a statement last week.

“The atrocity in Oklahoma City should have alerted us again to the potentially catastrophic consequences of verbal violence,” the statement continued.

The NIF statement highlighted recent incidents in which it said “some opponents of the peace process have crossed the line from legitimate debate and criticism to inflammatory rhetoric, incitement to violence, and to physical violence itself.”

In addition to the Hecht statement, NIF also referred to a June call by Israeli settlers in the West Bank for armed resistance against the Israeli army should their settlements be evacuated, and the alleged punching of Israeli Communications Minister Shulamit Aloni by an organizer of the New York Salute to Israel Parade.

In contrast to NIF singling out of the peace process’ opponents, the Orthodox statement emphasized the attachment of the groups to Israel and the “right of every Jew to live in all parts of Eretz Yisrael.”

It protested “the demonization and delegitimization” of the Jewish inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza in the media and by some Israeli government officials. It also condemned “the ongoing destructive verbal statements by many Arab leaders opposing the very existence of the State of Israel.”

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which first began discussing the question of civility and rhetoric after bombs were placed in front of the buildings housing NIF and Americans for Peace Now in January 1994, is in the process of getting approval for a statement of its own.

In its draft version, the statements warns that “public statements have consequences.”

“Those who engage in verbal or physical violence, demeaning characterizations and other excesses violate basic Jewish as well as standards of decency while endangering the interests of the community. They will not go unchallenged,” according to a draft obtained by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Malcolm Hoenlein, Conference of Presidents executive vice chairman, said the statement is important, because “it declares where the community stands.”

Although virtually none of those who engage in the name-calling belongs to the conference, members “have to declare they reject that kind of discourse,” Hoenlein said.

The debate over the peace process “is really getting into very serious issues that have serious consequences. It’s important that the focus be on the substance of issues,” he said.

Not waiting for the conference to issue its statement, several groups have chimed in with their own statements, modeled after that of NIF.

They include the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress.

“Unfortunately, some people who should be (condemning incivility) aren’t. But maybe if enough responsible, legitimate organizations will speak out on civility, the uncivil will get the message,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Foxman said some of the words being tossed by opponents of the peace process at its supporters, such as “quisling” and “Judenrat,” are “beyond the pale of debate.”

Had they been made by non-Jews, “the community would have been very much up in arms, certainly decrying them as anti-Israel if not anti-Semitic,” Foxman said.

“If a non-Jew had called the prime minister of Israel a traitor, or those who supported him Judenrat, the same Jews using terminology would be up front calling them anti-Semites,” Foxman said.

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