Behind the Headlines: Explosive Congressional Hearing Highlights Divisions Among Jews

Opponents of the Middle East peace process outnumbered supporters at an explosive congressional hearing this week that at least one Jewish activist said signaled a "sad day" for American Jewry.

For a marathon 5### hours Wednesday, members of the House International Relations Committee heard a parade of testimony as officials of Jewish organizations offered conflicting views of issues relating to the peace process.

Almost all 19 witnesses, including five Jewish members of Congress, focused on the polarizing issue of aid to the Palestinians.

The United States has pledged $500 million over five years to the Palestinians.

The legislation that allows the money to flow, the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act, expires at the end of the month. An extension is being considered by Congress.

Although it is not clear what effect the hearing will have on the ultimate legislation, the lawmakers heard the following on the subject:

The Zionist Organization of America called for an immediate cutoff of aid. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America asked the panel to hold the money for six months in escrow to ensure that the Palestinians were complying with their accords. And the American Zionist Movement and the American Jewish Committee backed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s call for Congress to pass the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act.

Senior Israeli and AIPAC officials had unsuccessfully attempted to dissuade committee Chairman Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) from holding the hearing for fear that the anti-Israeli government testimony would negatively impact the peace process.

But the hearings went on. But before any members of the Jewish community spoke, one committee member chided the whole lot for bringing domestic Israeli political disputes to the halls of Congress.

"I am disgusted by the attempts by opposition parties in Israel to manipulate the sincere concerns of many American Jews to further their own political agenda," said Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), a black congressman long considered a strong friend of Israel.

Hastings said he had more faith in Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s political judgment about making peace with the Palestinians than "I do with many of the persons who stop by my office to complain about the process."

These hearings are being held "because partisan Israeli political pressures are spilling over into the United States’ political agenda." Hastings added, referring to widespread attempts by Israeli political figures from Likud to persuade Congress on a number of issues, including blocking aid to the Palestinians.

At the end of the day, many Jewish observers who watched the hearing said members of Congress probably left the hearing room more confused about where the Jewish community stands.

"This is a sad day," said Seymour Reich, president of the American Zionist Movement.

Referring to the issue of aid to the Palestinians, he said, "For the first time I’ve seen prominent organizations of the Conference of Presidents (of Major American Jewish Organizations) testifying before Congress on a position contrary to that of the conference."

Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents, was referring to the stances set forth by the ZOA and the Orthodox Union.

The Conference of Presidents has supported aid to the Palestinians and has expressed its support for the current legislation making its way through Congress.

"This egregious breach is troubling and may have long-range negative implications for the community," Reich said.

But Morton Klein, ZOA president, saw it differently.

"The hearing was a victory for those who believe that in fact and deed Yasser Arafat is not complying with his agreement with Israel," said Klein, who has been in the forefront of lobbying activity against aid to the Palestinians.

Opponents of the aid tried to show how Arafat has failed to live up to his agreements.

Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.) agreed to show tapes of Arafat making speeches that were inconsistent with his pledge to end hateful rhetoric.

As time ran out on his testimony, Deutsch only played a 15-second excerpt from a tape that did not include any of the fiery statements contained in other portions of Arafat speeches. Thus members of the committee never saw Arafat calling for a "jihad," or holy war, for Jerusalem. But Deutsch provided a transcript of the full tapes for the committee.

The hearing had many odd moments, including when Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), citing a recent AJCommittee poll showing that 63 percent of American Jews do not favor aid to the Palestinians, told AIPAC Executive Director Neal Sher, "The vast majority of Jewish American don’t agree with you."

Another strange moment came when Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Calif.) said he was puzzled why Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat goes to the trouble of maintaining "eight days" of stubble.

"Why doesn’t he just grow it out?" Dornan said to James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, who also testified at the hearings.

Indicative that the public split among Jewish organizations has come squarely to the halls of Congress, Richard Hellman, president of the Christian’s Israel Public Action Campaign, said Klein and Sher during a brief recess: "Why can’t you guys in the Jewish community just get along?"

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