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News Analysis: Debate over Peace Process Intensifies Among U.S. Jews

Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, recently announced that he had resigned from his Orthodox synagogue of more than 20 years to protest the rabbi’s vitriolic attacks against the government of Israel for its efforts to make peace with the Arabs.

In a published letter, Foxman said his rabbi accused Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of being a willful accomplice in the killings of Jews by Palestinian terrorists. He said the rabbi likened Rabin to those guilty of complicity during the Holocaust by serving on Judenrat councils.

“I can no longer pray in a synagogue with a spiritual leader who spouts such hate-filled rhetoric and who harbors such intolerance toward others who do not share his authoritarian” view, Foxman wrote.

Polarization among American Jews over the Israeli-Arab peace process appears to be at its height two years after the celebrated signing of the Declaration of Principles by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The war of words is expected to intensify when the signing of a second agreement triggers a withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian centers in the West Bank as Palestinian self-rule is expanded. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were working feverishly to conclude the agreement before Rosh Hashanah, but it appeared that goal would not be met this week.

“both sides are preparing for a big fight,” said one Israeli official here.

“The security questions to be handled in the wake of the redeployment will be more important than the Gaza-Jericho agreement,” which launched limited Palestinian self-rule, said Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, which supports the process.

“The signing will lead to reactions in Israel and will have an impact here,” he said.

The latest salvo from opponents of the peace process was fired in a recent full-page newspaper ad urging a shift in donations from Israel Bonds to the One Israel Fund/Yesha Heartland Campaign for settlers in the territories. The ad was paid for by the Teaneck, N.J.-based Friends of Yesha, which has many Orthodox supporters.

Many leaders say the ad’s efforts to delegitimize the state of Israel, rather than its political policies, crosses a red line and attempts to sow unprecedented divisions among U.S. Jews.

The Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America responded with a statement reaffirming its support for Israel Bond appeals. And, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations sent a letter to Jewish newspaper editors protesting the ad.

Even the group One Israel Fund distanced itself from the ad. “While we appreciate the efforts of our supporters, the ad didn’t emanate from our office and does not represent our official policy,” said Steven Orlow, president of the group.

“We don’t feel it’s our place to deny funding to Jews in need anywhere in the world,” he said, “and we would hope the major philanthropies would behave the same way and extend generosity to the most endangered Jews in the world,” those in the territories.

But Orlow and other opponents of what they refer to as the “so-called peace process” concede that the rhetoric from their camp is rising to an unprecedented pitch.

They say it is born of frustration, fear and anger over the impact of concessions to the Arabs on the security of all of Israel as well as the settlers’.

“We feel the process is a disaster of historic proportions with reverberations for generations to come,” said Orlow.

The bitterness of the protest also springs from the “stifling by the current government of those who would like to voice their dissent in traditional ways – in the press, at demonstrations and t forums,” he said.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said the believes that “Rabin is not answering Jews’ real concern about giving land away.”

“He ignores it,” Klein said, “and many Jews are venting their extraordinary frustration and fear.”

According to Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, leader of B’nai Yeshurun, the Teaneck, N.J., congregation from which Foxman resigned, “The rhetoric is not divisive, the policies are.”

He declined to comment on Foxman’s resignation.

The prospect of unrestrained rhetorical warfare among U.S. Jews has alarmed the Israeli government and other advocates of the peace process who, until recently, have dismissed the voices of dissent as a noisy nuisance. They now fear it could jeopardize U.S. legislation key to promoting peace, such as funding for the Palestinian Authority.

They also fear the public divisiveness could do long-range harm to U.S. Jewish unity and to relations between Israel and American Jewry, whose traditionally united front on Capitol Hill on behalf of Israel has fractured.

“My big concern throughout has been whether this will impede U.S. efforts to support the peace process,” he said. “So far, there has been no discernible backing away by Congress or the administration.”

But there are no guarantees that this will not change, Raffel said. “I keep my eye on that ball.”

Ambassador Colette Avital, Israeli consul general in New York, said she believes that there has been an “escalation of rhetoric” by certain opposition groups “who will try to be even more vocal as the stakes rise,” but that their numbers have not increased.

“I don’t want to minimize them, though,” Avital said, adding that the groups “do damage.”

Avital charged that opponents have waged a “campaign of disinformation.”

And their “half-truths and fabrications” have managed to dominate public discourse in recent months because the mainstream community has filed to respond, she said.

“The mainstream has thought about them as marginal, minimized them and not responded, and this has created erosion,” Avital said. “What is lacking is an aggressive campaign” in support of the peace process.

That, by all accounts, is about to change as quiescent pro-peace groups start galvanizing, prompted in part by Israeli officials’ urgings at several meetings called during the summer.

“There’s a turnaround,” said Thomas Smerling, executive director of Project Nishma, a group that supports the Israeli government’s peace policies.

“The center never stirs until it’s threatened. Now the opponents have gone from being a nuisance to a threat and the supporters are beginning to stir.”

“There is a much greater awareness of the danger and insidiousness of the opposition which has no inhibitions,” said Jonathan Jacoby, head of the Israel Policy Forum, another pro-Rabin Government organization.

A number of American organizations are recognizing “they have to defend Israel’s policies in a way they never had to before,” he said.

Included in their arsenal will doubtless be a new American Jewish Committee survey which shows a majority of American Jews – 68 percent – still supports Israel’s handling of the peace process.

But the survey also will be used by opponents who already are highlighting the strong streak of skepticism toward the process it showed.

Seventy-one percent said they do not trust the PLO to “honor agreements and refrain from terrorism,” 56 percent said they believe that “the goal of the Arabs is not the return of occupied territories, but rather the destruction of Israel” and 91 percent said “the PLO is not doing enough to control terrorist activities against Israel.”

For ZOA’s Klein, most significant was the survey’s finding that 63 percent of American Jews oppose U.S. aid to the Palestinians.

The survey shows a clear majority is “opposed to giving hundreds of millions of dollars to Arafat, who encourages terrorism by continuing his `jihad via death’ speeches and by praising terrorists as `heroes’ who is violating virtually all aspects of the accords and who is misappropriating funds donated from around the world.”

Gary Rubin, executive director of Americans For Peace Now, said the high number opposing aid to the Palestinians partly reflects widespread sentiment against foreign aid. It also reflects the wording of the question, which did not indicate that the aid is linked to Israeli government policy, he said.

A long-term extension of the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act, the legislation governing U.S. aid to the Palestinian authority, has been approved by a Senate subcommittee.

The measure is supported by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, and most Jewish groups. Lobbying on both sides is in full swing as it moves toward action by the full Senate.

In a clear sign that the stakes are high for the Israeli government, it has dispatched a delegation of eight retired generals to speak to Jewish audiences throughout the high holiday period about the peace process.

Meanwhile, the Conference of Presidents is being privately criticized by several of its pro-peace process member organizations for not doing enough to support Israeli government policies or to condemn the harsh tactics of the opposition.

It is a charge easily deflected by Malcolm Hoenlein, the group’s executive vice chairman.

“We are consensus builders,” Hoenlein said. “That doesn’t mean we satisfy everyone on every position we take, but we’ve kept this community together.”

“The community has to recognize its responsibility to stand behind the democratic government of Israel, but it has a right to express its concern about Israel’s security in responsible ways,” he said.

“There are differences and they will continue to grow,” he added.

And even though “we have always allowed for diversity,” he said, “we have to isolate those who engage in verbal aggression.”

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